Return to Business Travel: Not Yet!

Business travel hasn’t rebounded as many expected. Much like return-to-office plans, will efforts to return to "normal" stall?

Flights are full. Airport lines are long. People around the world can't wait to get on planes and get out of town. 

Except, it seems, for business travelers, who for a variety of reasons haven’t embraced their former road-warrior ways. Their travel plans might never return to pre-pandemic norms, some experts say. “Pre-COVID travel is a thing of the past,” says Adam Prager, Korn Ferry’s regional co-leader for the firm’s Professional Services practice. 

Though the travel industry has reported more encouraging news, a recent survey found that only 17% of business-travel managers expect a full recovery by the end of 2022. That’s a steep drop-off from the results of the same survey a year ago, when more than half said they anticipated a full recovery by the end of 2021. Continued COVID-19 outbreaks and employees’ unwillingness to travel were the top two reasons travel managers were so pessimistic.

But there’s a bigger reason for business travel’s lagging recovery: clients don’t want as many face-to-face meetings. There’s no shortage of salespeople wanting to meet face-to-face, charm, shake hands, and go out to lunch, says Pat Smith, a Korn Ferry senior principal client director of the firm’s Sales and Service practice. “Clients say, ‘No, Zoom works fine.’ That’s a really big deal,” he says.

In some ways, the slow return to business travel mirrors firms’ efforts to bring employees back to the office. In both cases, many managers would like employees to get back to pre-pandemic ways, even as workers argue that the pandemic has shown that some work can be done just as efficiently, if not more so, from home. The recent—and significant—cost increases of airline tickets and hotel rooms is also making some road warriors and their firms think twice about how to use their travel budgets. What’s more, this summer’s rash of airline cancellations and delays may have created some dread in the business-travel sector. 

Business travel could just be taking a little longer to get back on the road. One big airline said that business-travel demand is at about 80% of 2019 levels. In a slew of earnings calls over the past month, hoteliers said revenue from business travel has rebounded significantly from the end of 2021. Some even expect individual business travel to be at 2019 levels by the end of this year. 

But some experts say firms are already reconsidering when, and why, employees should be hitting the road. For instance, instead of flying consultants to a client every week, some professional-service firms are sending in teams only for a work milestone, such as a kickoff meeting or a project’s midway point, Prager says. For others, Smith adds, the era of saying “I’m in town, can I drop by?” is over. Salespeople need to have a very compelling business reason to visit clients. 

Experts are also watching how business travel might merge with other kinds of travel. There has been an uptick in businesspeople tacking on extra days before or after trips, either to work from a different location or just spend time there, says Radhika Papandreou, leader of Korn Ferry’s Travel, Hospitality and Leisure practice in North America. The phenomenon even has a trendy name: “bleisure,” a combination of the words “business” and “leisure.”