Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, I travelled a lot for work. Except for strategic meetings and those where I am building a relationship with my clients, I realised how many of my meetings could have been conducted over the phone or via email.
Case in point. A few years ago, a business acquaintance requested we meet urgently in her office. When we did, she asked me to connect her with a few acquaintances. I could have helped her over the phone had she asked me instead of meeting in person.
There’s a viral meme: “This meeting could have been an email”. And it couldn’t be more true. Among the many changes that businesses were forced to undertake as a result of the pandemic, video conferencing tools such as Zoom offered efficiency, helped us to check in with our teams and aided us in getting more things done during the day without wasting time travelling to and from meetings.
Over the past year, numerous researchers have predicted how we will fly for business and how the frequency will change significantly after the pandemic as more organisations commit to helping the environment by travelling less. Air travel accounts for 3 to 4 per cent of total greenhouse gas emission in the US.
The consultancy PwC reduced its carbon emissions from business travel by 4 per cent between 2007 and 2017 while doubling the size of its business. The company aims to reduce total carbon emissions by 40 per cent next year. Other organisations such as Salesforce are following suit.
Business travel spending exceeded $1.4 trillion in 2018 with more than half of business travel concentrated in the US and China, according to Global Economic Impact & Trends 2020, published by World Travel & Tourism Council. However, although business travellers account for between 55 and 75 per cent of profit for top airliners, they only make up 10 per cent of passengers.
While domestic travel picked up, business travel is still lagging, and it may take a while to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. After the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, it took international business travel five years to recover, in comparison to two years for international leisure travel, according to McKinsey.
Managers are also not thinking of travelling more for business anytime soon. About 38 per cent of managers surveyed by the Institute of Travel Management regarding their travel budgets for 2021 said their business travel will be 25 to 50 per cent lower in comparison to 2019. Around 36 per cent said their travel plans are likely to fall between 50 and 70 per cent.
What does this mean for airline carriers? Inevitably the changes will push the travel industry to rethink the way it serves business travellers. Carriers and hotels will have to reconsider their loyalty programmes and new target audience.
While many corporate managers may travel less, freelancers can be the new business travellers. With more organisations hiring and depending on freelancers for projects, we can expect more travel by these workers.
Airlines could cater to freelancers by offering them special loyalty programmes. Airport lounges can be enhanced to accommodate freelance travellers by offering podcast recording rooms, video editing tools and a space for artists to catch up on work.
With many business managers rethinking their business travel, commitment to the environment and domestic travel picking up, airlines can invest in environmentally friendly forms of land transportation.
This can be by offering on-the-ground electric car-hailing services, investing in train routes and metros.
Airlines can extend the lounge experience beyond the airport, by offering space for work and dining across different cities, for a certain membership fee. As an incentive, visitors to the designated workspace can accrue air miles.
While I am sure that some businesses will go back to their old practices after the pandemic, business travel won’t be the same. Airline carriers and the travel industry will have to reassess their offerings and cater to a new class of traveller.
Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati journalist and entrepreneur, who manages her marketing and communications company in Abu Dhabi.