Will travel for business come roaring back?

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Why do we travel?

The answer is obvious. To experience new places and meet new people. To broaden our minds and create new memories.

Or, as Antony Bourdain put it: “The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

When the pandemic hit many companies were quick to announce travel was unnecessary. Employees could use video conferencing, hybrid events and online collaboration tools instead of going on trips to meet clients, partners and colleagues in faraway places.

A recent survey by Bloomberg found that 84% of large companies plan to cut business travel, even after the pandemic is in the rearview.

Some, like the Dutch multinational AkzoNobel, have started using virtual reality headsets, instead of jets, to visit their 124 factories.

“Trips to drum up business could drop by a third, and internal meetings by even more,” says CEO Thierry Vanlancker. “It’s a good thing for our wallets and helps our sustainability targets.”

Will Hawkley from KPMG agrees: “We don’t think business travel will ever return to 2019 levels. Corporates are looking at their bottom-line, their environmental commitments, the demand from employees for more flexible working and thinking: Why do I have to bring that back?”

While the need to cut carbon emissions is critical, the case for efficiency gains might be overstated if it comes at the expense of local knowledge, deeper cultural understanding, and closer relationships that only travel makes possible.

But I suspect that the corporates might be engaging in a classic case of who blinks first.

When the whole world was grounded companies did not need to worry about what their competitors were up to. But now things are opening up again it will take a strong nerve to not be concerned about being left behind.

The moment one of these corporate giants starts sending sales representatives and account managers out to see clients face to face it will be hugely tempting for the rest to follow suit.

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette, Lancashire Post and other titles. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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