Are we seeing the first signs of a return to normality?

Having resorted to virtual methods of communication during the pandemic, it appears many regular business travelers would like to revert to face-to-face meetings for client contact and sales pitches. However, the latest market research shows that we remain a long way from routinely hopping on a plane for client visits. Partly that’s due to fear and partly due to current restrictions in the various jurisdictions. It also depends on who you are talking to. 

A recent survey of over 2,000 respondents conducted by Business Traveler magazine revealed that, although many were keen to return to travelling, the vast majority (91%) would be less likely to make a trip to a destination that would require them to go into quarantine. That’s hardly surprising, and over three-quarters (78%) even said they would not be prepared to shake hands with their client when they got there. You might ask yourself what’s the point of going, then? Nevertheless, the survey concluded that nearly 40% of those interviewed expected to start travelling again before the end of 2020. 

But contrast that with the findings of a rival survey conducted by FCM which found that 250 business respondents (including multi-nationals and SMEs) are not expecting corporate travel to recover until 2023. Only 26% of businesses plan to return to pre-COVID levels for domestic travel during 2021, while most have long-haul travel plans on hold indefinitely. 

The survey estimates that business travel slumped by over 70% in May this year but had recovered to a still savage 52% drop by August. The sectors leading the revival were listed as the mining and wholesale industries, while among the least keen were the IT and Telco firms, presumably because of their niche technology.

For perspective on the impact of COVID, it is worth remembering that the September 11 attacks in the US reduced air traffic by 31% over the following five months while the SARS epidemic in 2003 resulted in an 18% drop in April that year. 

The evidence suggests that the current pandemic is on a totally different scale, but, whatever your view, there is a clear wish to return to ‘normal’ as soon as it is safe to do so. Meanwhile, some permanent change seems inevitable, but we won’t know what that looks like until we’ve had a vaccine for a while.