As corporate travel is slowly starting to return globally, it seems that the pandemic has changed the travel industry forever. This article looks at how business travel is evolving and the role technology plays as employees get back on the road for meetings post-Covid.
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In early 2022, Australia reopened its borders to business travellers for the first time in almost two years since the start of the pandemic. As the country adapts to business during the new normal, how necessary is it for small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) to return to corporate travel? Is business travel management being revived by human resources (HR) or office managers, or has the pandemic made it a thing of the past?
How has the pandemic impacted corporate travel?
Since March 2020, Australia has had some of the toughest restrictions in place as the government closed both state and international borders, bringing travel to a complete standstill. As workers had no choice but to cancel their business trips, many employees were also left working remotely from home instead of from the office. Digital technologies have made it possible for employees to continue with remote meetings and conferences as a way of staying in communication with both their colleagues and clients.
As of February 2022, borders officially reopened after two years of closure, welcoming the return of tourists and business travellers.* But is business travel still important? Data compiled by travel specialists Coporate Traveller found that small businesses account for 98% of all businesses in Australia and SMEs make up to 65% of business travel. This indicates that SMEs are key to both Australia’s economic and travel industry recovery. With the total business travel spend in Australia estimated to be at $25 billion per year, can it return to pre-pandemic levels?
How has corporate travel changed?
Globally, it seems that in-person meetings are returning instead of the use of virtual events, and so is the opportunity to see clients face to face rather than via Zoom. As employees are returning to the office, they may start to feel comfortable reconnecting with colleagues again, and, as borders have reopened, it seems like perfect timing for the corporate traveller to return.
But things have undoubtedly changed since the pandemic, and companies are reassessing what is expected of employees and the purpose of business trips. The recent business trend known as ‘bleisure’, for example, is on the rise. This is thanks to some employees having the option to work remotely, combined with workers getting back on the road for business meetings.
What is bleisure?
Bleisure is the merging of business and leisure travel, also known as a ‘workcation’. With company permission, employees can extend their business trip and spend time on holiday at their work destination. Some organisations may pay for this as an incentive as part of an employee engagement strategy. Whilst the concept of bleisure has been around since 2009, it seems that it is growing year upon year, and a recent report by Expedia found that, globally, 29% of bleisure travel is international whilst 71% is domestic.
The toll that COVID-19 took on employee mental health in the workplace may have led to employees seeking an improved work-life balance. Having the flexibility to visit new destinations and incorporate a holiday during a work trip, may be beneficial for employee mental wellbeing. A downside to bleisure is that people may have trouble disconnecting from work. Merging relaxation time with business may see work pressure follow employees wherever they go.
Corporate travel post-Covid is not just an opportunity for employees to mix business with pleasure. Company decision-makers may implement other changes to greatly improve the role of business travel and the experience for employees, such as:
- Less frequent trips for workers
- Purpose for travel
- No unnecessary one-day ‘boomerang’ trips
- Focus on how carbon-neutral business travel is for the company
Corporate travel serves a purpose as it helps to strengthen connections and communication, and may even help to close a deal with a critical client. However, moving forward in a post-pandemic world, companies may need to plan for more responsible and sustainable business travel.
SMEs will need to reassess future travel budgets and newly required criteria, such as travel insurance that covers COVID-19 (including testing, cancellations, or whether an employee is diagnosed with the virus whilst abroad). Receiving live and accurate updates when travelling is crucial for employees, especially if flights are cancelled last minute, for example.
How is technology changing corporate travel management?
Corporate travel may prove difficult for SMEs to manage, which may be due to limited resources for budgeting and planning. But artificial intelligence and machine learning software (MLS) can help SMEs as they grow their company internationally. Travel management software may help handle the basics, such as managing expenses and bookings. More cutting-edge developments, such as MLS, can help to personalise a traveller’s trip based on their preferences, creating a data-driven itinerary.
Travellers can benefit from the accuracy and speed of planning a trip via an app or website, with flights and hotels tailored to their specific needs. There is also no need for a travel representative, which saves on time and agency fees. Managing travel risk might be an especially important feature in light of problems faced by business travellers during the pandemic. A travel management system may also check flight prices, finding the best deals, which reduces the overall travel costs for an organisation.
What is the future of business travel after Covid?
Business travel remains important, not only for SMEs but for Australia’s economic recovery post-Covid. The lines between living, working, and travelling are blurring as companies re-evaluate their employee engagement plans so that workers can both work and play.
SMEs will need to review their travel policies to ensure they are prepared to manage any risks and also adapt to any possible changes related to the volatility of travel, such as delayed flights. Companies should also provide clear communication to employees on what to expect in terms of international travel, especially with regards to vaccination and testing. This is to ensure employees meet the differing entry requirements in each country.
The overall volume of business travel may still remain lower for a while as some countries are navigating COVID-19-related entry requirements. But it seems that thanks to emerging technologies and a global focus on climate change and sustainability, business travel will be less frequent, more efficient, and above all, more cost-effective for SMEs.
*Please check the official government website for the latest updates on the COVID-19/ visa entry requirements for those planning to visit Australia.