Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, May 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
Amon Cohen is a specialist business travel writer, conference moderator and media trainer
It’s a small but highly symbolic moment for me – I will very shortly be compelled to go out and buy a pen for, I believe, the first time in my 28 years as a business travel journalist.
I’m down to one last ball-point from TQ3 Travel Solutions (renamed BCD Travel in 2006) that I found at the back of a desk drawer, then that’s it.
My pen crisis has arisen because, like everyone else, I normally acquire them without much thought at meetings and conferences. But as I haven’t physically attended a work event since the Business Travel Show back in February, I now find myself pen-less, a tiny domestic metaphor for – much more worryingly – how the travel industry is becoming penniless.
At the other end of the scale of physical symbolism, I recently drove, by chance, past an airfield in the middle of the Gloucestershire countryside called Kemble, aka Cotswold Airport. Kemble has a long runway and thus is used both as a scrapyard and parking lot for unwanted commercial jets.
On the day I skirted its perimeter, I saw Boeing 747s and other aircraft belonging to British Airways, Iberia, KLM, Adria, Saudia, Icelandair and IndiGo all marooned on the tarmac. Sometimes you need the evidence of your own eyes to comprehend dramatic change. I confess it shook me.
The two questions everyone in business travel wants the answer to, but no one knows, are when will the market recover, and to what extent?
With regard to the first, it remains unclear whether bookings will only revive once vaccination is widely available. Will that be the moment governments drop quarantine requirements for international visitors, or will they do that earlier as economic pressures mount and passenger virus testing gains acceptance? Would business people feel comfortable travelling even if the threat of quarantine were removed?
These questions are complicated enough, but actually I think for those of us connected with travel management, the uncertainty runs even deeper. It’s not just that we don’t know when or how much travel will return; we aren’t even sure what we would like those answers to be.
Let’s imagine, for example, the wildly unlikely scenario that business travel recovers fully to 2019 levels by the end of 2021. Would that be a good or a bad outcome? When thinking about volume of travel, what does ‘good’ look like?
The only real way to achieve some key objectives much discussed by travel managers in recent years – environmental sustainability, traveller wellbeing – is for there to be less business travel than before.
In fact, Jörg Martin, principal of Germany’s CTC Corporate Travel Consulting, forecasts volumes never to return above 75 per cent of 2019 levels – and he considers that a positive outcome.
“It’s not good for our own industry but we have to start thinking differently,” he told me. “Employees will be less stressed and more efficient if they travel less, and we have to consider the environment.”
Some companies are already thinking differently. Boston Consulting Group, for example, announced in September that it will reduce travel-related carbon emissions by 30 per cent per employee by 2025 in order to deliver net-zero climate impact for its entire business by 2030.
That’s not to say all business travel is wrong. Far from it. We’re all appreciating by now how much is missed not just personally but professionally through being grounded for so long: we pick up a lot more than pens when we gather at conferences or for private meetings.
But a re-set, especially for some business travel addicts, was long overdue. ‘Good’ means resuming travel, but much less than we used to.