James' View | Lessons of lockdown: Understanding the value of necessary travel

By James Parkhouse, CEO, Capita Travel and Events

Business travel has been hit hard by the pandemic. Restrictions on in-person connections and travel have meant that volumes have dropped by almost 60% [1] as providers await the vaccine-enabled lifting of restrictions, so travel can resume safely.

But as opportunities to connect in-person emerge, it’s important to reflect on what to adopt and what should be recognised as stop-gap solutions.

Lockdown has changed the way we do business. The pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends such as home working, virtual meeting tool adoption, non-essential travel avoidance, traveller wellbeing and how we support mental health. Many companies have also had to re-shape their policies, allowing essential travel only, during the pandemic.

Reduced travel has brought health, social and productivity benefits, putting pressure on employers to combine time and office-related cost savings with a better employee work/life balance and an improved understanding of why and how we travel.

Corporate minds have been re-focussed on duty of care and cost control, but sustainability is back on business agendas too, with a trip’s climate impact being factored into travel policies. Some companies have even presented travel reductions as environmental initiatives, whilst TMCs are taking steps to support corporate sustainability objectives through carbon offsetting partnerships like the exciting work we're starting to do with Trees4Travel.

Understanding the value of necessary travel

As the vaccine rollout gathers pace, strict controls on travel remain in place, so, travel managers must decide when traveling for work is essential and what tools and policies will support an ever-changing landscape. They will have to ensure that travellers can adjust travel plans easily and without financial penalty.

Lockdown has proven the cost and time savings generated by virtual engagement. However, it has also highlighted its limitations, with face-to-face time with customers, business partners and colleagues being closely aligned with revenue potential. A study by forecasting firm Oxford Economics found that every dollar spent on business travel returned $12.50 in incremental revenue. [2]

Then there’s relationships. For every homeworker that’s relished the reduced travel time – and there lies another lesson in work/life balance - there’s a road warrior itching to get back out. For many, there’s just nothing quite like meeting customers in person to hash out the finer details when making a deal - or build important relationships through something as simple as a handshake. Interestingly, a 2008 study from the University of Iowa found that handshakes helped release oxytocin in the brain, helping to sustain co-operation and build trust.[3]

Employers should consider overall costs and productivity because better communication and collaboration can increase productivity by 25-35%. [4] Going forward, businesses must discover the optimal blend of digital and face-to-face engagement to enhance employee health, productivity and profitability.

What have we learnt about traveller confidence?

The biggest lesson of the pandemic, however, is that people want to travel and meet when it is safe to do so, especially to maintain essential face-to-face human connections.

60% of companies have already or plan to re-start non-essential travel in the next eight months. [5] Business travel helps maintain essential face-to-face communications. 88% of travellers and 86% of travel managers agree that business travel is important in driving company growth, whilst a third say the lack of travel during 2020 de-motivated them [6]. So, the appetite is there but what has become very apparent - and as I considered earlier in March - the basic need of confidence in traveller safety must be built upon to return to effective travel and connectivity. [7]

There may have been an accelerated shift toward virtual, but the prolonged absence of face-to-face connections may mean that in-person meetings hold greater value than ever when done right. We must now understand how we can use the new armoury of solutions to renew lost human connections but maintain the practices that have worked well.

[1] https://gbta.org/Portals/0/Documents/PR/2020_GBTA_Global_BTI-FINAL.pdf

[2] https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/Media/Default/Industry%20verticals/Tourism/US%20Travel%20Association-%20ROI%20on%20US%20Business%20Travel.pdf

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-moral-molecule/200810/handshake-or-hug-why-we-touch

[4] Gartner

[5] gbta-poll-key-highlights-012021.pdf

[6] Skift & Trip Actions 2021 Corporate T&E survey

[7] https://www.capitatravelevents.co.uk/post/the-customer-experience-how-traveller-needs-have-changed-during-the-pandemic