January 08, 2024

Remote Work Isn't Killing Business Travel – It's Transforming It

The days of in-person client meetings may be waning, but employees are setting out on corporate trips for new reasons.

During pandemic-era lockdowns, companies were forced to find virtual alternatives to once-essential business trips. As video calls became standard, technology provided a reasonable stand in for face-to-face client meetings.

When the world reopened again, many leaders realised that much of their pre-pandemic business travel was no longer necessary or financially sensible. Why pay the expense, when Zoom calls now got the job done, and in many cases were safer than in-person interaction?

The business travel industry took a big hit as a result. This year, in their earnings reports, many airlines – especially US budget carriers – reported steep financial losses, due in part to a decline in corporate trips. Yet some experts believe that as people settle into the practical realities of hybrid and remote work, business travel is due for a resurgence – and a makeover.

An August 2023 report from the Global Business Travel Association showed that the worldwide business-travel industry is expected to surpass its pre-pandemic spending level of $1.4tn (£1.1tn) in 2024 – two years earlier than some industry analysts originally predicted.

May data from American Express Global Business Travel, an international B2B travel platform, may help explain why. In collaboration with Harvard Business Review, Amex GBT researchers surveyed 425 US professionals, and found companies are changing why their workers are travelling. Instead of the pre-pandemic focus on sales-driven outings, business trips are now centred on what the report defines as "non-customer travel": companies are meeting up internally.

For businesses operating in a hybrid pattern or full-remote set-up, this travelling for face-to-face interaction has become vital. "In the pandemic, many people relocated, which has shifted the demographics of organisations," says Patricia Huska, chief people officer at American Express Global Business Travel.

While virtual meetings can often suffice, the Amex GBT data shows it can be an imperfect substitute, with 70% or respondents agreeing a primarily remote-work model can make employees feel disconnected, and 88% saying that meeting in-person is critical for building positive, long-term relationships among workers.

"Connections between employees are easily stretched, so bringing people together through travel regenerates bonds, strengthens culture within organisations and creates enthusiasm," says Huska.

This is something Deirdre Mc Gettrick, founder of ufurnish, a UK-based online furniture platform, has seen first-hand. Since the pandemic, her team of 16 employees has been working fully remotely, and now travel twice a year for company-wide meetings.

"In January, we all go away for one week to a hotel abroad, and use this time to reflect on the year just gone and set up the priorities and goals for the year ahead, both as a company and within individual departments," says Mc Gettrick. "Then in September, we do a shorter trip in the UK, which is a work-free event, and purely about coming together as a team for a bit of fun with activities like beer tasting or clay-pigeon shooting."

She says these off-sites have a "huge impact" on both business morale and team motivation. "It's an opportunity to bring people together and give them a chance to bond with those they are going to be working alongside as well as people across the business they might not usually come across. It means when people are communicating throughout the year, it's much easier to do."

The remote working set-up with in-person off-sites is a model that has been working well for McGettrick and her team – so much so they hope to do more in the coming year. "We would like to do three next year, with the third off-site in May to help regroup between the January and September trips, alongside celebrating the wins and process the learnings from Q1, our busiest period of the year."

The Amex GBT report highlights other important benefits of business travel as well. Six in 10 respondents said they believe business travel is a key component of professional development, and half agree their leaders believe the same. "Employees are noticing that employers are not just looking at the dollar amount of the trip, but instead seeing the value in investing in them," says Huska.

She adds, "When you take away offices, there is a void and travel is a way to fill that void." With hybrid work clearly here to stay, business travel – albeit a new iteration – certainly has a role to play.

Copyright 2024 BBC. All rights reserved. From https://www.bbc.com. By Elizabeth Bennett.

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