“Nothing beats the face-to-face”. So says Jo Sully, regional general manager for Asia-Pacific at American Express Global Business Travel.

It’s a sentiment dominating conversation about the future of business travel. Key decision makers in businesses, fatigued by video calling software, will need to see clients, customers, colleagues and suppliers in person, making up for lost time. Or so the theory goes.

But maybe, as business travel emerges from hibernation, it will take a different shape, and serve different needs. Opportunities for leisure, relaxation, and variation from consumers’ day-to-day might add more value to business trips in future.

Our latest research suggests that for the sector to reactivate demand, these currently overlooked aspects of business travel need to come to the fore. 

Green shoots are most evident in the U.S.

The prognosis for business travel is still poor, but some workers are traveling, and haven’t completely turned off the concept either.

While half of business travelers in the U.S. and UK have seen their companies restrict all travel, 33% in the UK can still travel for essential trips, and 7% haven’t faced any travel restrictions.

Level of travel

These figures can be held as a rough proxy for the level of demand throughout Europe; in our ongoing research European markets tend to have similar levels of business travel. Though it’s still a depressed figure, more non-essential travel is currently permitted in the U.S. (19%). 

So the U.S. is further ahead than Europe, at least for readiness to travel again. But just because businesses will permit travel again doesn’t mean employees will feel comfortable about doing it.

Easing of restrictions won’t necessarily lead to an increase in demand, at least not without an understanding of the most desired safety features, and the right psychological buttons to press. 

Any roadmap to reactivate travel has to recognize the feelings of individual workers, as they may well have the deciding say in whether they travel or not.

Feelings toward travelling again

Only 8% don’t anticipate going back to business travel at all, so most feel they will return at some point. But many will only go when they make up their own mind, or wait for government advice, rather than when their company assures them it’s safe.

UK business travelers are more guided by their own feelings, whereas in the U.S. company guidance takes the lead.

Regarding perceptions around safety, European travelers will need to be nursed more carefully than their U.S. counterparts. Wherever you look, it’s important to get inside the head of business travelers and tailor strategies accordingly.

Travelers think safe trips are possible – but aircraft are under scrutiny.

During a pandemic, journeys can be fraught. Any trip has several possible hotspots, from airport security, to boarding, the flight itself, baggage collection, transit, and accommodation. Each part has to be carefully controlled; that’s beyond doubt.

What we can show is at what stage travelers are most anxious, and which headline measures will assure them the most. 

Aircraft and airports under most scrutiny for safety measures

Only 4% think it’s completely impossible to run safe business travel in the near future, but some parts of the journey provoke more concern than others.

Airports and aircraft are understandably the biggest. Sanitizing accommodation and contactless interactions are felt to be less important, but no part of the journey is beyond scrutiny.

There’s no room for complacency at any stage, but what happens on the aircraft and in the airport is the biggest potential deal-breaker.

Safety strategies will, though, require flexibility in what’s emphasized and when. A staggering amount of research is being published about the virus each month, and consensus can rapidly change. 

Social distancing on aircraft has become a hot topic, and it’s an area where attitudes vary between U.S. and UK travelers. 33% in the U.S. feel it’s important to ensure traveler safety, whereas only 26% in the UK do.

It’s unlikely this is down to any single reason, though the longer average time in the air for U.S. flights probably plays a big part. Travelers may feel a short trip from London to Paris or Frankfurt is easier to endure than one from New York. 

But safety isn’t the only thing to consider, and it’ll be difficult to get cut-through from safety messaging alone. To build the most effective strategy, travel marketers can learn from the reasons why people travel for business in the first place, to stimulate those feelings and ensure travelers feel their trip is worth it. 

Why choose business over pleasure when you can have both.

While safety messaging is important, it shouldn’t obscure what consumers are most looking forward to when business travel resumes. Talking about business travel as a superior alternative to video calling software ignores what people most get out of the process.

Our research has found face-to-face contact is not the biggest reason why people will come back to business travel as it resumes; personal enjoyment is. 

It also ignores how business travel will adapt and change in response to widespread working from home. 3 in 10 business travelers expect to work from home more frequently after COVID-19, and even more expect to use video conferencing tools more often.

Neither of these will go away, but then neither will business travel. It will, however, take on a different shape: before COVID-19 ground corporate travel to a halt, one of the market’s biggest trends was “bleisure” travel, business trips that included more leisure time.

It’s a trend that will be central in reactivating the sector.

As most travel will be difficult and disruptive for some time, it’s a practical way for a consumer to enjoy a leisure trip, without having to go through what they may perceive as an arduous travel process again. Two difficult trips, combining business with pleasure, may be easier to tackle than four. 

Personal enjoyment key to business travel

It should be stressed, though, that this is bigger than just workers adding weekend dates to a two- or three-day visit. This is a recalibrating of priorities in business travel.

Some trips will likely be replaced by virtual meetings, but new opportunities will open up, for relaxation, or to add variety to a WFH routine that – after an initial sense of freedom – many feel is monotonous

What counts as personal growth and personal enjoyment changes depending on location. In the UK meeting customers (28%) is high, but it’s exceeded by the need to keep work life varied (38%).

In the next few months it’s likely more workers will crave an escape from their now familiar office/home hybrids, and travel will be one way to achieve that. Similarly in the U.S., the most eagerly anticipated factor is exploring new places (29%), with time to relax (25%) not far away. 

There’s room to capitalize on this while embracing safety. Hyatt Hotels’ Global Care and Commitment programme, for example, balances necessary restrictions (closing buffets) with replacements that add something to the customer experience (individually prepared replacements delivered to the room).

Arguably even more foresighted is the chain’s deepened partnership with mindfulness app Headspace, with travelers now able to access more complimentary content during their stay. These are the sort of relaxation-based, customer-centric amenities that will help define the new business travel experience. 

There are some subtle differences between the U.S. and the UK that should be taken into account too. Building a professional network (24%) and feeling trusted by an employer (23%) are extra relevant in the U.S. market.

So personal growth is the most important part to UK travelers, whereas in the U.S. professional growth is just as important.

Messaging to European travelers can therefore concentrate on the most enjoyable parts of the trip from a leisure standpoint, whereas in the U.S. messaging that affirms how travel can boost someone’s professional profile and self-worth may land best.

Sterilize surfaces, not your services

Unlocking demand in business travel will require thinking beyond business. With such slowdown in the market, travel will take on a new importance, even for those traveling on behalf of their company.

Safety factors are obviously important to implement and communicate, but that’ll be true for any business sector for the next 12-18 months.

There are parts of the passenger journey where safety needs extra emphasis (particularly around airports and aircraft), but the most effective messaging to give people on the cusp of traveling again may be reminding them of what makes it so personally meaningful.

Travel providers will have to get used to round-the-clock cleaning of surfaces and making working environments sterile and safe. It’s important to ensure customer service doesn’t become sterile as well.

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