Numbers show that people are more interested than ever in taking trips that combine work and vacation, but companies are struggling to craft corporate policy to manage those blended trips.
Society has been talking about bleisure travel for years, the portmanteau of “business” and “leisure” that often sees a business traveler extend a trip for leisure purposes.
And while the appetite for bleisure travel remains strong among employees — in many cases stronger than before the pandemic — the concept has changed in both name and format.
Today, many use the term “blended travel” to describe bleisure, which is no longer just a bit of pre- or post-work fun: some business travelers want even more flexibility. Many companies now cater to the growing crowd of workers who want to be constantly on the move (see related story, Page 12), be able to work from a destination remotely for a few extra weeks and just have the opportunity to work from anywhere.
And while an increasing number of travel policies are beginning to address blended travel, the majority of it still seems to be at least partly unmanaged. It is an area that has eluded many travel management companies (TMCs) thus far but, perhaps, offers opportunity in the months and years to come.
“The convergence of business and leisure behaviors was once remarkable. Not anymore,” Crown Plaza Hotels & Resorts wrote in its 2022 report “The Future of Blended Travel.” “Bleisure is rapidly becoming a word — and a concept — from another era, as post-pandemic travelers increasingly adopt seamless blended travel behaviors and attitudes.”
WORKERS WANT THE ABILITY TO BLEND
While blended travel still faces hurdles to adoption, chiefly that travel policies don’t clearly spell out what is and isn’t permitted, employees want the ability to blend work and leisure.
In their recent Q2 earnings calls, both Marriott International and Hilton Worldwide highlighted bleisure as a trend to watch. Marriott CEO Tony Capuano pointed to the fact that occupancy for “shoulder nights” of Thursday and Sunday has neared 2019 levels as proof travelers “are continuing to combine leisure and business trips.”
In its State of the Hotel Industry Report 2022, the American Hotel & Lodging Association said blended travel “exploded during the pandemic.”
The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) in April surveyed members and industry stakeholders involved in managing or procuring travel for their company. In the results, it found that 90% of respondents said employees are more (30%) or equally (60%) as interested in bleisure travel compared to pre-pandemic times. Only 10% said employees are less interested in blended travel.
The Crowne Plaza report found that 80% of respondents in the U.S. like the idea of traveling while working remotely, and 60% said they plan to add leisure days to future business trips.
“Travelers are certainly eager to take bleisure trips again and make up for lost time,” said Varun Mehra, a senior consultant with CWT Solutions Group. “Moreover, with airfares soaring at the moment, the prospect of adding a few leisure days to a work trip has become even more attractive.”
Charuta Fadnis, Phocuswright’s senior vice president of research and product strategy, said it’s difficult to quantify the demand for blended travel right now. However, she said, it’s easy to see why the appetite for bleisure is strong.
“Overall business travel volumes are lower than pre-pandemic, so total bleisure volume is likely lower,” Fadnis said. “But, if I had to guess, more business travelers are likely adding on elements of leisure to their business trips so, yes, demand is higher from that angle. And after all these months of being cooped up, it’s likely that there will be more bleisure as business travel returns.”
THE TROUBLE WITH BLEISURE
While the desire for blended travel is high, its execution is somewhat difficult. There are several factors at play.
Mehra said many companies are hesitant to more readily define and permit bleisure travel because of “risk management concerns.”
“On the one hand, the pandemic has made hybrid working mainstream, where businesses are increasingly giving employees the flexibility to choose where they work from, whether that’s the office, home or another location,” Mehra said. “But at the same time, companies now feel a much greater sense of responsibility for the safety and well-being of their people, especially when they’re traveling for work. They need to be able to support an employee who catches Covid while traveling or gets stranded overseas amid the current wave of flight cancellations.”
However, he said, as the world continues to normalize, more companies could start to allow bleisure travel as a perk to bring on and retain talent.
But right now, many TMCs just aren’t seeing blended travel happen, at least in terms of their company’s bookings.
As David Reimer, executive vice president of global clients and general manager of the Americas for American Express Global Business Travel, put it: “Demand is high, but I think execution is low.”
Reimer said that while people have talked about bleisure for a long time now, “it’s been talked about more than it’s been activated from a policy perspective and a company perspective.” Because even though blended travel is happening, he said, it’s happening outside of what’s supported by a company’s travel policy, in what he called “unstructured leisure.”
He thinks there is an opportunity for companies to consider a better travel experience for employees. Like Mehra, he said he believes a solid blended travel policy could, in fact, attract better talent and act as a differentiator.
“Culture-wise, that’s the opportunity,” Reimer said. “Because I think companies recognize that they need to do things to make sure they’ve got the right culture. Some of those things around flexibility are incredibly important, because the office doesn’t exist in the same way as it did before.”
Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Business Travel in Bel Air, Md., agreed that a more defined policy for blended travel is needed.
“I think it’s kind of like the big wish list — every TMC would love to see it,” Ellenby said. “And in some cases, maybe every company would like to see it. But it just really hasn’t come to fruition. How do you make it profitable? How do you make that model profitable, and how do you split it out from the expense between personal and business? There are a lot of complications to it that goes beyond the cute word of ‘bleisure.’ We’d all love to see it and it makes every bit of sense.”
While Ellenby believes many companies would like to provide a clear bleisure policy as a perk to employees, he has yet to see it written into a travel policy.
According to a GBTA poll, almost half (49%) of those polled said their travel policy does not allow bleisure trips, but in practice employees are often permitted to take blended trips. Only a little more than one-third, 36%, said their travel policy expressly allows bleisure; 3% said it is expressly not allowed.
Suzanne Neufang, CEO of the GBTA, said her organization has followed bleisure’s move from a pre- or post-work vacation to blended travel, a more flexible way of combining leisure and business travel.
Today, she said she believes blended travel is often “hidden in the accommodation line” of an employee’s trip: They might use their TMC for transportation and hotel for the business portion of their trip, then privately pay for the accommodations for the leisure part of their trip.
“Overall, it’s still a dynamic time in the evolution of business travel as well as in what business travelers want and need now,” Neufang said. “There has been pent-up demand, and many travelers do have an interest in blended travel. But only time will tell if this is just a surge at a moment in time or a longer-term desire that is here to stay — if so, it might be one companies look to approach more formally in their travel policies and culture considerations for their workforce.”
A NEW TWIST ON PAID VACATIONS
Some companies are taking a more innovative approach to adding leisure travel into the mix for employees.
For instance, Skylark Travel in New York is working with global law firm Goodwin, which has gifted its associates between $5,000 and $10,000 to take a vacation, CEO Paul Tumpowsky said. Skylark is running the program, which totals about $5 million in travel, for the firm.
“It’s not just about, ‘Hey, we’ll pay for some vacations’; they want their associates to take more vacations, and they’re giving them the funds to go do it,” Tumpowsky said. “It’s a really cool program.”
Paul Metselaar, chairman and CEO of New York-based Ovation Travel Group and Skylark’s chairman, said he’s seen a flurry of corporate clients asking about providing leisure travel incentives to employees.
“That’s a trend that I think is going to increase, unless we hit a major recession,” Metselaar said.
New York-based Frosch has also seen some interesting movement in the world of blended travel.
Marc Kazlauskas, president of the leisure division and U.S. branch operations, said the most common form of blended travel is still what was traditionally considered bleisure: extending a business trip and bringing a companion. But Frosch is also seeing an increase in blended travel.
One client recently modified its travel policy to be more flexible, executive vice president Lara Leibman said. Employees were offered the chance to go on vacation, then extend their stay in that destination or elsewhere and work remotely, usually for an additional two or three weeks.
“As a result, if I were to go on holiday to the Amalfi Coast, I could choose to stay in Rome for another two to three weeks to work remotely, or I could rent a villa in Greece and enjoy that additional time with my family while working remotely,” Leibman said. “This shows us that companies today are keen to ensure the well-being of their employees and adjust to account for the changing needs of the workplace. Bleisure is being driven by the holiday versus the business trip in this scenario.”
Frosch has been providing leisure options to corporate clients for years, said Judith Allen, president of global corporate and energy travel management. As to the future, she said, travel managers are discussing modifying travel policies to account for blended travel.
They are mainly focusing on areas like traveler tracking, duty of care, health, payment and reimbursement, among others.
“We feel blended travel is definitely not going away,” Allen said, “and we will continue to provide solutions to our clients to ensure we can provide an excellent traveler experience, while supporting the data, duty of health, business intelligence and compliance required by our customers.”
THE ‘NEW NOMAD’: HOW THE PANDEMIC CHANGED BLEISURE
The term “digital nomad” once evoked a vision of a young, freelancing entrepreneur traveling the world with no real responsibilities except, of course, posting to social media.
But the pandemic has shifted that narrative and created what Phocuswright has dubbed the “new nomad,” a worker that tends to be older, more senior and with more money intent on working while traveling for leisure.
“For us, it was a myth-busting study because there are a lot of preconceived notions of who lives this kind of bleisure, digital lifestyle,” said Madeline List, a senior analyst at Phocuswright and one of the authors of the February 2022 report, “The New Nomads: Work and Play from Anywhere.”
Of course, List said, there are still young, digital nomads, but there was a noticeable uptick in new nomads unveiled in the course of Phocuswright’s research.
Phocuswright found via a survey that 17% of U.S. leisure travelers took more frequent blended trips in 2020 and 2021 than in previous years. They tend to be 35 years old or older, with a higher annual household income, an advanced degree and, usually, a partner and children. They also tend to have more seniority at work.
The most popular reasons they are combining work and travel: better work-life balance; relaxation; spending time outdoors and in nature; and learning or practicing a new skill or hobby.
“The pandemic clearly brought changes to business-as-usual that enabled a larger share of travelers to maintain their employment while traveling for leisure,” Phocuswright noted in its report. “As companies around the globe push for recovery, however, it remains to be seen whether flexible work policies are the new normal — or if there will be a push for employees to resume working on site. While companies will need to decide how to proceed on an individual basis, travelers are hoping for continued flexibility.”
List said she believes the trend will more than likely continue going forward.
“It’s going to be a lasting trend because a lot of companies still left a lot of remote-work permissions on the table even if they reduced some of it,” she said. “There’s still that flexibility that’s there.”
Copyright 2022 Northstar Travel Media, LLC. All rights reserved. From https://travelweekly.com. By Jamie Biesiada.