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Three months ago, as COVID-19 vaccines became widely available in many parts of the world, CEOs were cajoling their employees to fly out and visit clients, putting corporate retreats back on the calendar, and jetting themselves off to close deals.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus’s delta variant over the last several weeks has thrown cold water on those plans. Spending on air travel dropped sharply since early July, according to credit- and debit-card data tracked by Earnest Research. Weekly domestic flights have been declining, and multiple trade shows are getting canceled. And this week, the European Union recommended halting nonessential travel from the United States because of the rise of COVID cases.
But while experts say the impact on organizations won’t be as crippling as the full lockdowns of a year ago, this business travel slowdown still could force organizations into some difficult decisions with their own employees. Should they discourage business travel, potentially crimping revenues and profitability, or should they let their employees fly and drive, potentially putting them at a higher risk of exposure?
Professionals certainly want to get on the road. When Korn Ferry surveyed them in the spring, 76% said they missed traveling for work, and 65% said travel makes them more effective at their jobs. “For many professionals, business travel has been an integral part of how they form strong ties with colleagues and clients, and how they get the job done,” says Sarah Jensen Clayton, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s leader of North American culture and change.
Up until July, Americans had been heading back into the skies. There were nearly 565,000 flights operated in June, more than double the number in June 2020, albeit still 17% fewer than June 2019. Airlines estimated that business travel through the first half of the year was only about 40% of 2019 levels but had been seeing considerable pickup in May and June. As recently as early July, many airlines were rejiggering their flight schedules and anticipating more business passengers in the fall. Then the delta variant began spreading rapidly.
The air travel that has occurred over the summer has often been beset with delays. A particularly bad patch of weather in Texas forced delays and cancellations of thousands of flights nationwide. In the air, customers are frustrated with the mask mandates and fewer food options on planes. Right now, many organizations are approving travel only if the trip is “client essential,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits. “All travel is 100% voluntary. A client can’t force you to go, either.”
Salespeople and top executives, roles often associated with being road warriors, feel they are hindered by the problems with travel. But experts say it’s likely tougher for some individual contributors. For instance, the CEO of an aircraft company probably can do most business over the phone or in a virtual meeting. The firm’s mechanics and engineers, however, likely must be where the planes are to do their jobs most effectively, and those planes could be anywhere. “I always thought of business travel as executive travel, but it’s not,” says David Vied, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice.
In some ways, the business travel decision had been relatively straightforward during the pandemic until now. At the beginning, most people canceled trips outright; all but the most essential work, regardless of its location, was put on hold. Businesspeople that did travel were fairly certain that everyone they saw on their business trip would be wearing a mask. As vaccines became widely available in the spring and the level of COVID cases declined, business travelers started booking trips.
But now, while hundreds of millions of people are vaccinated, COVID case numbers are rapidly increasing across many parts of the world. Business travelers aren’t quite sure whether the maskless people they are meeting with are vaccinated or not. Being vaccinated doesn’t make a person invulnerable to COVID-19, either. On the flip side, some organizations have mandated vaccinations for employees and visitors, potentially curtailing any in-person meetings with unvaccinated business travelers.
Experts say some firms may want to consider a bonus for those who have to travel. It would be akin to the higher wages or bonuses that many frontline workers got during the worst part of the pandemic, reflecting the increased, and hopefully temporary, risks that come with their job responsibilities, says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “It does seem that groups have to go above and beyond what is normally required of the job,” he says.