Do I Need to Travel Again?

There’s a major reluctance, particularly among older workers and executives, to resume business travel. Can businesses thrive with fewer road warriors?

Corporate leaders may have envisioned that the moment employees got vaccinated they could jump into a car, train or plane and get to get business done. But it seems that isn’t the case at all, even among senior executives.

Two new surveys indicate that business professionals, especially older ones, aren’t itching to pack their bags. Only one quarter of people over 55 are comfortable traveling for business even after they’re vaccinated, according to a new survey of 15,000 people across 9 countries conducted by IBM. Meanwhile, when research group YouGov polled more than 1,400 European business travelers, it found that 42% said they will fly less often even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

The momentum around vaccinations is starting to resuscitate travel, and far faster than expected, according to experts. In the United States alone, air travel has jumped more than 50% from just last month and bookings are expected to keep soaring. Much of the travel is for leisure, but the pressure for organizations to get executives on the road is growing, as opportunities and collaborations from face-to-face meetings pick up in a host of different industries. That pressure appears to have caught many executives themselves off guard. “Individuals are only now starting to have conversations with their families about what they want travel-wise,” says David Vied, global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice.

Any reluctance to return to the road-warrior days may also, interesting enough, cut out much of the face-to-face meetings with the very top echelons at a company, says Melissa Swift, Korn Ferry’s global leader of workforce transformation. Pre-pandemic, she says,  many top executives—including C-suite members—lived away from headquarters and flew in frequently, a schedule they may now balk at. “That’s going to be an interesting dynamic if they’re not willing to resume their consultant-style travel schedule,” she says.

To be sure, studies have showed the business value of business flying, even with the expense. And despite the two new surveys, more than three quarters of business professionals said in an earlier Korn Ferry survey that they miss traveling for work, with a majority citing face-to-face interactions with clients and colleagues. Still, even before COVID fears, there were always parts business travel most people can do without. Respondents to Korn Ferry’s survey, for example, cited potential unhealthiness and being away from family among the top reasons for not wanting to return to business travel.

Indeed, wanting to travel is not the same as needing to travel, says Brian Bloom, vice president of global benefits at Korn Ferry and cochairman of the firm’s COVID-19 task force. With the ability to drive business not diminished in a virtual and remote world, organizations are not likely to reinstate travel budgets to pre-pandemic levels, if at all. “Businesses aren’t going to support nonessential travel if the work being proposed can be done virtually,” Bloom says. That’s supported by airline booking data, which shows corporate ticket sales down around 85% from pre-pandemic levels.

Still, some staffers may feel their next bonus could come from a trip a colleague turns down. Firms may also be inadvertently sending subtle messages that competitors are visiting clients. For that reason, Vied says a public company CEO’s first face-to-face meeting should be treated as a public event, even if it’s a private meeting. “Optics really matter on this, perhaps more than they realize,” he says.