While concerns over the COVID-19 delta variant continue to be a drag on the rebound of business travel, the outlook in general remains optimistic. This according to the September business travel sentiment tracking poll from the Global Business Travel Association, the 23rd conducted by the association since the start of the pandemic.
On the question of allowing non-essential business travel, this month’s survey was in line with the August poll. About two-thirds (61 percent) of companies are permitting domestic trips while just one-third (34 percent) allow non-essential international business travel.

In each of the past three months, the percentage of travel managers who feel their company’s employees are “willing” or “very willing” to travel for business in the current environment slipped, from 77 percent in July to 68 percent in the September poll.

Furthermore, for companies that currently "never” or “rarely” allow non-essential business travel, the rise of COVID-19 variants continues to delay the resumption of non-essential trips both domestically and internationally. Of the buyer members and contacts surveyed, eight in 10 report their company is likely to delay the resumption of non-essential domestic (81 percent) and international (80 percent) business travel due to the prevalence of delta and other variants.

Nevertheless, optimism continues to edge up, with more than one in five (22 percent) of the travel supplier and travel management company respondents saying they feel more optimistic compared to a month ago. In the August poll that number was 15 percent.

The percentage who say they feel more pessimistic about the industry’s path to recovery dropped from 39 percent in the August to 27 percent in the latest poll. Almost half (51 percent) say they feel the same.

Most companies report they do not require COVID-19 tests before or after employees travel for business, to attend a meeting or event, or return to the office, regardless of the employee’s vaccination status. In the US, 73 percent reported not requiring testing. In Europe 67 percent do not require testing and 39 percent in Canada, although it’s important to factor in national healthcare policies versus company policies when considering testing requirements in various countries. Of those who note their company requires COVID-19 tests, most (60 percent) say their company fully pays or reimburses for the cost.

In September, two-thirds (66 percent) of buyers and procurement professionals report due to the pandemic, their roles have changed “slightly” to “a lot.” This includes:

• collaborating more closely with other departments (71 percent) such as Human Resources, Finance, Legal, Risk Management or other teams
• elevating duty of care as a higher priority in the company (70 percent)
• developing new approaches or revisions to current corporate travel guidelines (69 percent)
• serving on new cross-department committees or task forces (44 percent)
• incorporating or prioritizing more sustainability policies in the company’s travel program (40 percent).

Many report they spend “more” or “much more” time than before the pandemic collaborating with other company stakeholders, particularly Security/Risk Management (66 percent), Human Resources (51 percent) and Senior Management/C-suite (46 percent).

Even with business travel down from years prior due to COVID-19, more than one-third (37 percent) of travel buyers and procurement professionals say they are “more” or “much more” reliant now on their travel management company than they were before the pandemic.

The survey found 41 percent of GBTA members and stakeholders say their company is reevaluating the return on investment for business travel. Top areas include increased emphasis on traveler wellbeing and safety (56 percent), increased use of hybrid meetings (combined in-person and virtual) (52 percent), reduced travel for internal collaboration meetings (49 percent) and reduction in overall travel costs (48 percent).

“It’s not a surprise that for a second consecutive month, travel industry buyers and suppliers continue to report ongoing caution around variants and travel restrictions as key factors impacting what would otherwise be a more accelerated return to business travel. The recent news regarding the opening up of the US to UK and EU business travelers will hopefully alleviate some of the concerns and give a needed boost to the business travel ecosystem through year-end,” said Suzanne Neufang, GBTA’s CEO.

“Additionally, we’re seeing early signs of new ways of thinking coming to corporate travel programs including the importance of closer collaboration with corporate travel managers and travel management companies.”