The Global Business Travel Association in February named Suzanne Neufang CEO. The veteran of HRS, Sabre and other tech and telecom firms offers her two cents on the state of industry recovery here.
Recently, CNN interviewed me on “the death of business travel.” It’s a popular topic in media circles, but one which I challenge. While the Covid-19 pandemic has battered our industry for 15 months – creating 10 times the economic impact of 9/11 or the Great Recession – already we are seeing glimmers of recovery.
In April 2020, 98 percent of global respondents to a GBTA survey reported their companies had cancelled all or most international business trips, and 92 percent had cancelled all or most domestic trips. That halt persisted, leading to an unprecedented low point in our 2021 Business Travel Index, released in January.
So where are we now, as vaccinations advance and Covid-19 caseloads decline in much of the world?
In our May 2021 poll, 54 percent of supplier respondents reported an increase in corporate bookings, after 50 percent said the same in April. Among supplier and travel management company respondents, 52 percent said they felt more optimistic about business travel’s recovery than they did a week earlier. Only 3 percent said they felt more pessimistic. Among buyer respondents, 74 percent said employees were “somewhat willing” or “very willing” to travel for business. Only 10 percent described their company employees as unwilling.
These positive trends don’t sugarcoat the challenges ahead for business travel. The obstacles for a full recovery are many, including corporate travel budget and policy decisions, and scheduling office reopenings and in-person meetings.
The velocity of the recovery will depend on continued pandemic mitigation and governments’ willingness to reduce barriers to travel. At GBTA, we continue to advocate in Washington, Brussels, Ottawa and London for the reopening of international travel and for easing restrictions on travelers who are fully vaccinated or produce a recent negative test result.
As I’ve spoken to our members around the world about their organizations’ recovery plans, certain themes have been constant. Over and over again, I’ve heard about the need to establish a degree of post-pandemic normalcy and to restore cohesiveness among team members who in many cases have been working remotely for months. This need to resurrect team culture and improve employee engagement looms large for many company leaders, as does the desire to reconnect with clients and business partners in person, as sales teams and competitors again begin to take to the road.
As restrictions continue to ease, our industry will have an opportunity to move ahead by leaps and bounds. Already, the biggest players in business travel have slimmed down their operations amidst pandemic challenges and an increased reliance on virtual meeting options. Many industry startups and incumbent players were acquired, and we may see even more consolidation to maximize synergies and better serve returning business travelers.
If the past is prologue, the near- and medium-term future will be fertile ground for new players and innovation. What emerged after the 2008 financial meltdown was a business travel industry ready to embrace the power of cloud computing, adopt the efficiencies of managed travel and leverage useful elements of the new gig economy, like Uber and Lyft. Today, as the pandemic shows signs of slowing, we are seeing the growing adoption of touchless technologies and an increased focus on sustainability — with the ultimate goal of reducing business travel’s impact to zero. The pie of managed travel also will surely continue to grow, as formerly unmanaged or lightly managed companies realize the critical importance of providing guidance and services to travelers.
New business travel tech and service innovations can then do what virtual tech taught us in 2020 – create new ways to collaborate, build relationships and grow businesses — but this time, once again, in person.
After all, that’s what business travel is all about. Let’s create that future together.
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