February 22, 2024

Why we need to travel again

After months of 'getting by' in a virtual world, we all need to get back to travelling, says Evan Konwiser, Executive Vice President, Product & Strategy, American Express GBT

What hasn’t changed in the last year? That might be an easier approach to thinking about the future. The durability of institutions has been shaken up like never before.

But through all this, one thing remains true: in-person interactions feed the mind and soul. The lack of them has created chaos, from missing the embrace of a family member to sending your kid out on a play date or selling a prospect on your product.

The accommodations we’ve made to transfer those relationships online have allowed us to ‘get by’ in the last year but nowhere in the handbook of business does anyone suggest that ‘getting by’ is our aspiration. We want more than that. We deserve more than that. So business travel, like play dates and family celebrations, will be back.

There’s plenty of research to back this up. Harvard Business Review studies find in-person meetings boost teams’ effectiveness across a broad range of key drivers, including keeping focused, deeper learning, shared sense of purpose and being part of a community. Similar research by Stanford University professor of communication Jeremy Bailenson reveals key causes of virtual meeting ‘exhaustion’, including close-up eye-contact and scrutiny of colleagues over long periods, constantly monitoring your own nonverbal behavior and your appearance on-screen, and reduced mobility – the lack of movement, the walking and talking that boosts creativity.

We all know this to be true. Think of the shift in conferences. In 2019 we spent hours on planes to be surrounded by colleagues and sit in rooms to discuss topics and build relationships. In 2020, we logged into a virtual meeting platform for the same content, but zoned out while we checked emails or instagrammed photos of our cat doing funny things in our home office. Did you get anything out of that virtual meeting? No. Rinse and repeat over prospect meetings, customer meetings, team meetings, one-on-ones, workshops… and it’s not hard to see why we’re suffering.

The relationships that drive business don’t function virtually and being together is often the ultimate productivity hack and competitive advantage (yes, even when you factor in the time and expense). Contrary to popular belief, CFOs didn’t just now invent cutting T&E to save money. It’s been around for a wee bit.

So how do we get back to building fulfilling relationships that grow our businesses? Surely, as we build back up from zero, we can do it more thoughtfully, purposefully, and sustainably – in new ways that make people’s work-lives better and adapt to the other societal changes happening around us.

“The true competitive advantage of travel will shine like never before”

We don’t expect to see a return of the daily office commute to bring people together. Instead, we’ll see business travel enabling the future of collaboration, driving a ‘gather and scatter’ approach to the new hybrid working environment. This approach will gather dispersed teams and remote workers for in-person experiential meetings, which prioritise bonding opportunities and feel less like traditional business trips and tasks. This is an opportunity for corporations to be really creative in how they built culture and take maximum advantage of collaboration.

This is a new area of investment decisions for companies: think about those savings made on office space and how best to reinvest this money in your employees so they are engaged, connected, inspired, and feel part of your organisation’s values and culture?  A dispersed workforce comes with some amazing benefits but it also brings challenges that business travel is poised to solve.

Does your company’s policy recognise the rise of the corporate digital nomad? Working from anywhere in the world was a trend before the pandemic but has now accelerated, with workers proving to be effective and productive from any time zone. Allowing the inspirational benefits of a change of scenery and a flexible approach to people’s lifestyles and opportunities may, in some situations, become the hallmark of the successful modern employer. 

We expect changes in demand management and permissibility and more analytical support for helping employees know when travel is the clear answer. This is natural when returning from a near-zero starting point. The true competitive advantage of travel will shine like never before.

“The future of business travel is secure because the personal and business need is paramount and undiminished”

There’s also a renewed focus on employee wellness and duty of care. Beyond the obvious attention to Covid-related travel concerns, companies now look at travel more in the fabric of work-life balance and overall personal wellness, with an enhanced focus when more employees aren’t in the office every day. Time off, healthy habits, mental health – these are all critical items that become part and parcel of any employee programme, inclusive of travel.

Finally, there’s no doubt focus on environmental sustainability has accelerated as a result of the pause in travel. It interacts with all the trends above and compels us an industry to advance the awareness and technological capabilities needed to drive faster and more ambitious carbon goals. There are now more tools available than ever before, giving us real hope of a sustainable future that doesn’t have to trade off ‘being there’ with doing what’s right.

The future of business travel is secure because the personal and business need is paramount and undiminished. It’s an enabler of business, a driver of competitive advantage, and perhaps just as importantly, it makes us ‘feel’ again, in a world that has been two-dimensional for too long. But the way we do it must take advantage of what we’ve learned and our capacity for change to advance a decade in a year. Business travel has not peaked. It’s quite the opposite: we’re just getting started.