Omicron Variant May Limit Return of Business Travel

Sara G. Norris

(TNS) — Many road warriors’ suitcases and passports have been gathering dust since the COVID-19 pandemic brought business travel to a halt.

That’s not the case at Chicago-based Devbridge, which hosted an all-hands event in Lithuania earlier this year and brought teams from Toronto, London and Lithuania to its Chicago office last month to workshop new products with clients.

The technology consulting firm’s 650 employees are spread across global offices and spent about 20% of their time on the road before travel restrictions were imposed in early 2020.


“The moment those were lifted, we had teams flying and visiting clients,” said co-founder and President Aurimas Adomavicius, who expects the company will eventually return to “business as usual” when it comes to employee travel.

“In-person collaboration for high-performing teams for us isn’t optional. It’s necessary,” Adomavicius said.

Corporate travel has been especially hard-hit during the pandemic, as people are quicker to plan vacations than business trips, especially as employers delay reopening offices amid a new wave of infections this fall. The emergence of a new highly transmissible variant, omicron, has added uncertainty about the timing for a broader return to business travel. Just last week, the U.S. imposed new restrictions on travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region.

Travel companies say they’re confident road warriors will eventually return, but that doesn’t mean every company’s workers will hit the road as often as they used to. While companies like Devbridge say they’re eager to get back to their globe-trotting ways, others realized they didn’t need to be on the go as much while stuck at home during pandemic lockdowns.

“It’s not just automatically jumping on a plane for an hourlong meeting, it’s proactively working with clients to say, ‘How can we best use our time together?’” said Stephanie Nerlich, CEO of Havas Creative Network for North America.

During the first year or so of the pandemic, the advertising agency, which has about 350 employees in Chicago, did almost no travel because clients weren’t asking for it, Nerlich said. Some began requesting in-person pitches again over the summer, and she still thinks it’s the best way to build relationships. But she’s skeptical employees will be on the road as frequently as they used to be.

Havas and its clients are trying to be more thoughtful about when travel is necessary — for instance, replacing multiple short visits with a longer, more productive session, she said. Limiting travel reduces costs and will help the company hit its goal of being carbon neutral by 2025.

Bounteous, a Chicago-based consulting company that helps brands build online experiences, also plans to be “more strategic” about travel going forward, Chief People Officer Leah Weyandt said.

Before the pandemic, some of Bounteous’s clients only wanted to conduct business in person. Now, everyone is used to Zoom and other virtual work tools.

“They no longer view face-to-face as the only way to accomplish a task,” Weyandt said.

Still, some in-depth work and trust-building is best done in person, she said. When Bounteous bought Atlanta-based commerce and customer experience agency FortyFour last December, the lack of face time made it the company’s “most challenging acquisition to date,” she said.

Approaches vary by company. About 38% of business travelers surveyed by Bank of America thought they would travel significantly less than before the pandemic, while 31% disagreed, according to a November report.

Even as some companies say they plan to pull back on business trips, airline executives were optimistic about a pickup in corporate travel next year on calls discussing their earnings in October.

“What we’ve been told … is that we should expect really an acceleration of business traffic next year with a lot of pent-up demand. We have a lot of clients that need to get back on the road and they’re anxious to do so,” United Airlines Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella said at the time.

At American Airlines, almost two-thirds of corporate customers are doing at least some essential international business travel, and the airline expects business travel revenues to rebound to 2019 levels by the end of 2022, President Robert Isom said during an earnings call.

The Global Business Travel Association was slightly more cautious, forecasting a 38% increase in global business travel spending next year, with a full return to pre-pandemic spending by 2024, according to a November news release.

It’s not yet clear how omicron will affect those forecasts. In a statement Tuesday, the Global Business Travel Association urged governments to avoid closing borders and instead focus on assessing individual travelers’ risks.

Prior variants have brought a decline in bookings, followed by an uptick “once the surge dissipates,” said Helane Becker, an airlines analyst for Cowen, a financial services firm.

“In our view, this pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future, and in that vein, we believe people will start to overlook the risks and travel anyway,” she wrote.

However, business travel has been slower to recover than leisure. If omicron prompts a widespread delay in office reopenings, it could be a setback, but it remains to be seen how companies will react, said J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at research and consulting firm Forrester.

Some might push official openings back while waiting for additional information about the risks omicron poses, while others might remain open on a voluntary basis or adopt additional precautions like vaccine mandates, he said.

“Everyone’s in COVID-19 risk management mode,” he said.

Over the long term, even if growing comfort with remote work tools encourages some companies to plan fewer business trips, other pandemic workplace changes could create new travel patterns, said Dave Harvey, vice president of Southwest Business. A company that’s more open to remote work might still want far-flung employees to fly in to the office periodically, he said.

Southwest Airlines estimates it’s only seeing about half the business travelers it saw in 2019, but the carrier has been working to win over more corporate flyers during the pandemic, Harvey said.

Southwest has long had a reputation for leisure travel, and its limited network of international destinations and planes with no business class seats mean it won’t be a fit for every road warrior.

But most business travelers aren’t lounging in upgraded seats or jetting to overseas business hubs, Harvey said. They might like Southwest’s free checked bags and no-fee flight changes — a perk other major carriers have since matched. Those who prefer to avoid smaller regional jets might also be attracted to Southwest, he said.

Business travelers also value reliable flight schedules, something airlines including Southwest have occasionally struggled with as travel has recovered this fall. Harvey said Southwest is running fewer flights over the holidays to limit the odds of disruptions.

Hotels are also seeing business travelers return. Hyatt’s revenues from business and group travel in the most recent quarter were nearly 40% higher than during the prior quarter, said Asad Ahmed, Hyatt’s senior vice president of commercial services for the Americas.

Many of Chicago-based Hyatt’s corporate customers say they’re planning a stronger return to travel in early 2022, Ahmed said. Still, the company expects to handle more hybrid events in the future, with a mix of in-person and remote attendees, because they’re more inclusive.

“People cannot always travel for a variety of reasons, so hybrid formats are a great option for planners to significantly grow the reach of their meetings and include more attendees than ever before,” he said.

Hyatt’s own employees are getting on the road more too, as are employees at BMO Financial Group.

At the start of the pandemic, the bank’s customers understood its increased reliance on virtual tools, but as vaccination rates have risen, so have the number of in-person meetings and corporate travel, David Casper, U.S. CEO of BMO Financial Group, said in an email.

“Banking is a relationship business and quite frankly nothing can replace the value of face-to-face, personal interaction,” he said.

© 2021 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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