It's been more than two years since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out and few commentators can claim to have foreseen the scale and longevity of its impact. As the data below shows, business travel activity rapidly plummeted and continued at only a very low level and for a limited number of sectors. Further down the page, discover current projections of business travel's recovery and we learn to live with Covid.
Data from Travelogix shows how new monthly business travel transactions fared over three years, from January 2019 to December 2021. “New transactions are widely considered the benchmark for many, if not all, TMCs,” says Chris Lewis, founder and CEO of Travelogix. “For the entire 12 months of 2021, new transaction volumes were 65.18 per cent down on 2019 and 13.33 per cent down on 2020..” The following Travelogix data covers some 13 million records – with an aggregate value of £6.2 billion – of around 70 UK-based TMCs whose annual turnover ranges from £10 million to £150 million. Travelogix says its TMC clients account for around two-thirds of agencies in the UK market.
2019 was a relatively 'normal' year for business travel activity, with bookings steady through to the summer before rising in the peak autumn season and then dropping off towards the end of the year as is normal.
2020 got off to a promising start with January transactions up on the previous year before collapsing in March as the Covid-19 pandemic spread globally. There was a brief glimmer of hope in September before bookings fell away again towards the end of the year.
Transactions in 2021 increased slowly towards the summer and accelerated in the autumn before the Omicron variant and the usual festive downturn impacted recovery. "Despite some positive upwards trends emerging in the early part of Q4 2021, we witnessed a backwards step in December due to the Omicron variant," says Lewis.
The rise and fall in the ticketed revenue of Focus Travel Partnership members not surprisingly follows a similar pattern over the same three-year period. Its member TMCs booked £102 million in airline tickets last year, compared to an average of £350 million annually pre-Covid. Ticket revenue in 2021 increased slightly (by 1.75 per cent) compared with 2020 but fewer tickets were issued year-on-year.
Hazel Dawson, commercial manager at Focus Travel Partnership, said that some members had managed to “stay above the average market trend” due to the sectors they specialise in. “Our top-performing TMCs in terms of tickets booked very much sat in the three key areas of marine, entertainment and professional sports, all of which had exemptions to travel to various countries around the world with limited restrictions or quarantine being required,” she explained. The Focus figures that follow represent the combined ticket revenue of 55 UK-based small and medium-sized travel management companies.
Regulations and recovery
Throughout the pandemic it’s been clear how closely related are the easing of travel regulations and the swift surge in bookings that follow. That’s fairly obvious in situations where most nationals have otherwise been prevented from visiting a country – when the US reopened to EU and UK citizens in November 2021, for example – but it’s also true of softer policy changes too. Data from travel management company CWT demonstrates the point.
In the UK, CWT’s weekly bookings for outbound travel increased 100 per cent within a fortnight after the government announced on 24 January this year that it would scrap testing for fully vaccinated travellers from 11 February. Similarly, inbound bookings leapt 51 per cent within two weeks and by 115 per cent five weeks after the announcement. The UK’s top outbound markets in this period were the US, Germany, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands. The top inbound markets were the US, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and France.
When Norway announced an end to all testing for travellers with immediate effect on 12 February – including those not vaccinated – outbound bookings climbed 72 per cent within a week and inbound bookings by 62 per cent within a fortnight. The top outbound markets at this time were the UK, US, Denmark, Sweden and Spain, and its top inbound markets Denmark, UK, Finland, Sweden and France.
In India, inbound bookings climbed 113 per cent within a fortnight after the country announced on 10 February that vaccinated travellers from 82 countries would no longer need to show a negative test result or isolate from 14 February. Meanwhile, outbound bookings rose 64 per cent within two weeks of the announcement. India’s top inbound markets at this time were the US, UK, France, UAE and Singapore. Top outbound markets were the US, UK, Canada, Germany and UAE.
Forecasting the recovery of travel – and of business travel in particular – may appear a fool’s errand with so many factors at play, but that hasn’t prevented a number of associations and companies committing their research and predictions to paper.
Back to business
While the recovery of business travel in 2021 proceeded at a slower pace than previously predicted, global business travel spend is expected to surge in 2022 and fully recover by the end of 2024 – a year earlier than originally anticipated, according to research by the Global Business Travel Association. The results of the 13th annual BTI Outlook, the GBTA’s annual study of business travel spending, found that after a sharp 53.8 per cent decline in spending to US$661 billion in 2020, global expenditure is thought to have rebounded 14 per cent in 2021 to US$754 billion.
Growth in business travel spend of 38 per cent is predicted for 2022, potentially taking spend back to more than US$1 trillion, followed by a rise of 23 per cent in 2023. By the end of 2024, the numbers are expected to make a full recovery to just above pre-pandemic levels at US$1.48 trillion. In addition, research by Business Travel Show Europe found the majority of travel managers (52 per cent) believe there will be a return to pre-pandemic travel volumes by 2024. Only eight per cent expect volumes to fully recover in 2022, with 14 per cent identifying 2023 for full recovery.
Airlines association IATA expects air traffic to exceed 2019 levels in 2024, according to its March 2022 forecast of the sector’s post-pandemic recovery which presented a more optimistic outlook than its previous forecast four months earlier. Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, said: “People want to travel and when travel restrictions are lifted, they return to the skies. There is still a long way to go to reach a normal state of affairs, but the forecast for the evolution in passenger numbers gives good reason to be optimistic.”
According to a report from International SOS, business travel activity will take longer to stabilise than home working, site working and office working patterns. Its research, published in April 2022, was based on the views of nearly 1,000 risk professionals across 75 countries.
More than a third of respondents (35 per cent) said home working patterns had already returned to ‘normal’, with a further 29 per cent expecting it to stabilise in the next three to 12 months.
One in five respondents (21 per cent) said office working patterns have already stabilised while 27 per cent said the same of site working, with a further 50 per cent and 41 per cent respectively expecting office and site working to stabilise in the next three to 12 months.
In contrast, only nine per cent of respondents said business travel activity has stabilised, with 28 per cent expecting 'normalisation' within the next three to six months, 26 per cent within a year, and 18 per cent said it could take up to two years or longer.