Half-way through 2024, the Great Reset of business travel is well underway. Travel providers and corporations alike are keenly aware of the changing demographics, shifting travel patterns and new organizational models that are raising the stakes for today’s travelers. Competition for high-value talent is joining cost containment and sustainability as a prime concern for travel programs, with expectations for more personalized service, greater productivity and deeper insight into the traveler’s experience.

Increasingly, discerning travelers are expecting their experiences on the road to reflect their own lifestyle preferences and personal views. In response, travel providers are upping the ante with high-value products that feature wider selection, more amenities and better technology.

“In this new era of business travel, the balance has shifted,” says Greeley Koch, managing director of 490 Consulting. “It’s about making smart, cost-effective decisions without sacrificing the wellbeing and satisfaction of the workforce. Flexibility, understanding, and respect are the new pillars of corporate travel. And that’s a philosophy that’s here to stay.”

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A new course is being charted for the business travel industry, and the route looks very different today than it did at the beginning of the decade. In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown of daily life brought global travel literally to a standstill. Many industry pundits estimated that the recovery of business travel could take anywhere from decades to never. No less a luminary than Bill Gates famously predicted that over half of business travel would disappear forever.

“Bill Gates got it wrong when he said business travel would drop 50 percent long-term,” Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Hyatt, told the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference in New York last month. “Business travel is back and is seeing steady growth,” Hoplamazian said. “Not a month goes by that it doesn’t go up because people are seeing the value of getting back together.”

Much of the handwringing in the early days of the pandemic came from the assumption that, given the option, most companies would severely curtail business travel in favor of cheap, easily accessible technology like Zoom and Teams, and business travelers would eagerly go along. After all, hadn’t virtual meetings kept the wheels of commerce turning – if somewhat spasmodically – through the depths of the crisis?

“We all thought there would be a decline in business travel due to the introduction of several remote communication platforms that we adopted during the pandemic, but this didn’t happen,” writes Duane Overgaard, president of connectivity and SVP of DerbySoft, a technology provider for travel commerce and marketing. “When it comes to business, basic communication, information exchange, and online calls and e-mails will work. For all other business interactions beyond the basics, in-person meetings serve more value,” Overgaard says.

Rising Tides
The purveyors of pessimism had overlooked some important facts behind the return of the traveler: First, business travel is widely considered essential for driving a company’s performance. In fact, a recent survey from the Global Business Travel Association and Uber found that most employees (87 percent) say business travel is important to company growth. Business travel is also a major factor in the broader US economy, contributing almost 2 percent of GDP and supporting 6 million jobs, according to another recent GBTA study.

Another problem – discovered in the depths of the pandemic – is that for many business activities, in-person face time beats screen time most of the time. And perhaps most important, business travel is still travel, meaning it can be invigorating and personally rewarding. “People want to see the world and experience things,” Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta told the NYU Hospitality Conference. “Everyone has greater mobility, there is better infrastructure and people have more flexibility in their work lives.”

As a consequence, business travel is making a comeback. According to the latest GBTA Business Travel Outlook poll, eight in 10 (83 percent) travel buyers say their 2023 global business travel bookings increased over 2022.

And in 2024, the momentum continues to build. In another a survey, this one from travel management company Internova Travel Group, a large majority (85 percent) of business travelers expect to be on the road the same amount or more often in 2024 versus 2023.

“We have seen demand return from business travelers, and our survey suggests that this trend will continue,” says Henry Gilroy, senior vice president of strategic development at Internova. “The pandemic saw an increase in the use of travel advisors as travel became more complex. As travel has eased, we have not seen the use of advisors return to pre-pandemic levels,” Gilroy says.

“What we are seeing from our client base is a demand for a more dedicated and personalized service that takes their specific needs into consideration,” according to John Keichline, CEO for Reed & Mackay North America. While travel consultants can provide guidance on everything from the most desirable seat on the plane to hotel recommendations, Keichline says, they play a pivotal role “jumping in to help a traveler out of challenging situations.”
In other words, what today’s travelers want is the information they want and the help they need – when they need it.

“Our research and listening exercises with clients have shown that travelers want three things: Know Me, Be Where I Am and Tell Me Only What I Need to Know,” explains Lora Ellis, head of consulting at Festive Road. “These expectations become more digital with a younger workforce who is tech savvy.”

The Young and the Rest of Us
A recent survey by OAG paints the demographic picture of today’s returning business traveler. The study of 2,000 North American air travelers shows all generations except Baby Boomers plan to travel more for business this year than they did in 2023. More than one-third of Gen X (35 percent) plan to fly for business this year, a 10 percent rise over 2023. A similar number of Millennials (36 percent) plan business travel, a 6 percent increase, while more than a quarter (27 percent) of Gen Z are also hitting the road in 2024.

“There’s a new demographic in town,” Keichline says. “New travelers that have been in the workforce for a few years, but haven’t had opportunities to travel because of COVID. With so many people who started their careers during this period, these newer travelers are more excited about business travel.”

Furthermore, as more young professionals travel on behalf of their companies, a shift in attitude is also underway. “For this new generation workforce, business travel is a benefit, not a chore,” Overgaard notes. “A Forbes article reveals that 65 percent of young professionals see it as a status marker.”

The fresh viewpoint of this younger cohort has actually been playing a huge role in the industry for years, says Lisa Hoehn, SVP global sales and account management at ALTOUR. “The new young professionals think differently and travel differently with personal work/life balance options and freedom to work anywhere playing a big role.”

This new wave of business travelers is looking for updated travel policies with more flexibility and transparency, coupled with tools that deliver a seamless experience. In response, corporation are prioritizing individual wellbeing and offering options that enhance convenience and can accommodate the shift to remote work and blended travel.
“Over the past several years, travel management practices have evolved to strike a better balance between societal factors and cost considerations,” notes George Kalka, vice president of business travel at Fox World Travel. “These dynamics have made travel management a more multifaceted and strategic role.”

Koch agrees that managing today’s travel program involves much broader brushstrokes. “Companies are rewriting the playbook,” he says. “Sure, companies are still laser-focused on costs – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But the days of ruling travel programs with an iron fist, where the corporate travel manager played the role of travel police, are long gone. Instead, they're offering flexibility in travel times and accommodation choices. It's a smart move,” he adds. “Happy employees are productive employees.”

Table Stakes
One factor fueling this transformation is the advent of cutting-edge business travel technology. “We’re seeing a substantial increase in travel demand, which is good news for the industry,” says Shannon Garcia, senior vice president, global sales and strategy at ALTOUR. “Simultaneously we’re seeing a confluence of factors – not just the changes in distribution but emerging technologies that are starting to shift how travelers arrange and manage their travel.”

A modern, tech-enabled, mobile-first travel experience is table stakes for corporate travel programs these days. And these expectations are not strictly limited to the younger generations of travelers; anyone who takes to the road for business should be able to count on their technology. “Clients have a wider range of demographics in their programs and want to provide them choice, a multi-channel approach,” Ellis explains. “There needs to be a good experience in each channel and for some clients they want the experience to feel similar no matter the channel.”

Travel programs are looking for more streamlined booking processes and more ways to provide support during the trip. “They also want more intuitive tools that know the traveler and can combine their preferences with company policy, helping them get to the right trip in fewer clicks,” Ellis notes. “Travel is not the job of their employees and they want travelers to focus on their time on business objectives.”

Remote, Blended & Green
In bygone days, the term “business objectives” had a fairly clear-cut meaning: Go someplace, build your network, make a sale, service a client, etc. However, in the aftermath of the pandemic shutdown, more companies were forced to allow their employees to work from anywhere. Post-COVID, it’s a trend that shows no signs of abating.

“Clients are looking for creative solutions to support their widely distributed workforce,” Garcia says. “They’re looking for advice on how to mitigate risk, address resulting tax implications and meet the traveler where they are regardless of how/when/where they booked their trips. The natural assumption is that there is a single global online booking tool that works in all markets around the world consistently – and there just isn’t, yet.”

A second trend triggered by the return of the traveler is the demand for blended, or ‘bleisure’ travel, where business trips are extended to accommodate leisure time. A recent survey by software development outsourcing platform Howdy.com found that 40 percent of Americans are going on business trips this year; of that number, half (49 percent) intend to turn it into a ‘bleisure’ trip.

With all the travel options available to them, travelers have more ways to leverage that business outing to a desirable destination. “Companies are starting to look at the total trip cost and overall traveler experience,” Kalka explains. “This approach allows for more personalized travel options that enhance an employee’s individual travel experience while still aligning with corporate policies.”

But while the idea of blended travel is gaining acceptance – especially as a way of engaging high-value employee talent – really, it’s always been part of the business traveler’s experience. “The art of getting what you want for seasoned road warriors has been an ongoing game of corporate travel,” Hoehn says. “I believe the key is embracing the opportunities that are available and rewarding top producers. Enticing recruits with ‘perks’ can be to the company's advantage.”

Yet another sea-change driven by demographics is sustainable travel. More companies are prioritizing climate goals and are looking for travel suppliers to follow suit. “Younger people place more importance on sustainability, and as they account for more and more trips, sustainability becomes a bigger issue when choosing how to travel and where to stay,” Gilroy notes.

“While sustainability isn’t a new initiative, it’s importance is trending upward; not only at the organizational level, but at the individual traveler level,” Keichline says. “With the return of the traveler and all the emissions that come with it, it will become more important than ever for an organization to provide their people with the tools and data to make informed decisions about their travel.”

Managing the Reset
Business travel is back, but the returning traveler is not the same character we left behind in 2019. Today’s traveler is bringing new energy, fresh demands and a seismic shift in how corporate travel is managed. “During the pandemic, the role of the travel manager was elevated significantly, often involving direct engagement with executive leadership,” Kalka says. “The focus shifted away from costs alone, ushering in a new emphasis on traveler wellbeing and experience.”

With the pandemic, travelers, buyers and suppliers quickly adopted a laser focus on health and safety. Out of that came a more holistic emphasis on traveler wellbeing, a trend which has endured past the COVID emergency.

Combined with the advent of artificial intelligence, the industry may be on the cusp of travel policies that are tailored to the individual traveler.

“The idea of ‘A Policy of One’ is becoming more feasible as travel programs are introducing more flexibility and cost elasticity into their policies,” Kalka says. “This approach can lead to better business outcomes, as satisfied travelers are more productive and engaged.”

Ellis sees A Policy of One as an idea whose time is still in the future. “But what is possible in the short term is a dynamic policy that uses technology to be applied in various situations,” she says.

In the meantime, managing ever-changing travel programs will require clear, concise travel policies and ongoing feedback and communication. “Now more than ever, travel managers have to prioritize what is really important and what is going to produce the best ROI,” Hoehn says.

In this new era, business travel is no longer a dreaded necessity but a seamless part of the work experience, one that most business travelers find rewarding, Koch says. “The integration of advanced technology with empathetic travel policies ensures that employees feel valued and supported every step of the way. This is the future of corporate travel – empowering, efficient, and employee-centric.”