Do I Need to Travel Again?

As vaccinations gain momentum, pressure is mounting for people to return to business travel whether they want to or not.

At first, the trip didn’t seem worth the risk or expense. Getting vaccinated didn’t mean you had to hop on a plane and go see clients again. But after hearing his colleague talk about how great it felt to meet in-person again—and seeing the increase in business that came from it—Bob suddenly realized he may have to start traveling again for work whether he wanted to or not.

The momentum around vaccinations is starting to resuscitate travel, and far faster than expected, according to experts. More than 1.3 million people traveled by plane in the United States last Friday, the highest single-day total since before the pandemic forced a lockdown last March. As leisure travel ramps up, experts say so too will business travel—and with it comes concerns among workers about their safety if they are required to travel and the repercussions involved if they don’t. David Vied, global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice, says because of a combination of desire among workers and subtle pressure from leaders, “most of my clients expect an initial bubble around business travel with or without the vaccine.”

To be sure, a new Korn Ferry survey shows that 76% of people miss traveling for work, with 68% of them citing face-to-face interactions with clients and colleagues as the main reason. A study last month by the Global Business Travel Association showed similar results, with 79% of people saying they would be fine with traveling for business after being vaccinated.

But not everyone feels that way. Experts say many vaccinated people or those who have had COVID-19 and recovered are still reluctant to travel despite pressure from their firms to do so. According to one survey, only 29% of frequent business travelers who are still employed say they expect to travel to a conference in the first half of this year, and just 36% plan to do so in the second half of the year. Respondents to Korn Ferry’s survey cited potential unhealthiness and being away from family among the top reasons for not wanting to return to business travel. Further, in one of the stranger twists of the pandemic, some older workers are delaying retirement because they are finding they are better off in a remote work environment, in part because they no longer have to travel for business.

How and when people return to business travel depends in large part on a complex web of issues. Chief among them, says Vied, is whether organizations should directly vaccinate employees. He says given some of the delays with obtaining the vaccine through normal healthcare channels, some organizations may be better positioned to procure and deliver the vaccine on their own. “You want to avoid a situation where an employee wants or needs to travel without having received the vaccine,” he says. There’s also the issue of quarantining for as many as a recommended seven days in some states after traveling, even with a negative test result, which can drain productivity.

Moreover, 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.

Put another way, even if people are uncomfortable about traveling, if they see their CEO jumping on planes, they will feel pressure to do the same. “Leaders will set the example,” says Bloom. “How they return to travel will set the tone for how others return to travel.”