Prelude: The most exquisite Chinese meal covered the table. It was the first week in January, 2020, and I was a dinner guest of an accomplished Chinese chef. My host, a lady in her mid-70s, was a stickler for authenticity, and she made a monthly trip from rural New Jersey to Queens, NY, to meet with her family and to get exotic ingredients that came in mysterious packets and jars. The meal was a tapestry of flavors, aromas and textures, each a delight to the palate.

This kind lady withstood my effusive admiration, then told me her most recent venture to Queens would be her last “for a long while.” Travelers returning from China were reporting a strange new illness that was ravaging one particular province. She thought returning to Queens might be too dangerous.

That was how I first learned of COVID-19, the biggest story in the history of business travel – a story I shrugged off with a smile.

Two Questions
There are two questions facing the business travel industry today: A) When will business travel and leisure travel spending return to pre-COVID-19 levels? And B) when will the business travel industry return to “normal”?

Managing Travel Programs

At first glance, these questions seem to deal with the same issue – they don’t. Trillions of dollars hang in the balance as airlines, hotel chains, rental car companies, ground transportation providers, and a vast support network of restaurants, dry cleaners, bars and newsstands are at subsistence levels or shuttered. Many are facing huge layoffs or collapse.

Countries and cities that rely on tourism are broke.

This will change when the traveling public has access to a reliable vaccine that eliminates the threat of COVID-19. As this goes to press at the end of July, over 170 vaccines are in one stage of development or another; three have either started or are set to enter large-scale Phase III trials. Several pharmaceutical and biotech companies have been tapped for the US government’s vaccine accelerator program called Operation Warp Speed – among them, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, AstraZeneca/Oxford University and Pfizer and BioNTech.

The Pfizer-BioNTech team has already reached a $1.9 billion deal with the US government for 100 million doses of a COVID-vaccine, with an option for 500 million additional doses, following manufacture and a fast track release following FDA approval.

Americans will get the vaccine for free. While business travel will benefit from this, the emphasis is on jumpstarting the US economy, once the strongest it’s been since WWII, and now gasping under 11 percent unemployment. It is anticipated that this vaccine will be in circulation by the first weeks of 2021.

Buried in all the hoopla surrounding this announcement is the statement, "If the ongoing studies are successful, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be ready to seek Emergency Use Authorization or some form of regulatory approval as early as October 2020.”

This vaccine is not guaranteed. But it is better than nothing at all.

So the answer to the first question — when will business travel and leisure travel spending return to pre-COVID-19 levels —  is that travel spending could begin a gradual, then much sharper, climb, in the first four months of 2021, if the vaccine works. If the vaccine doesn’t work, then we have to consider the next point.

Redefining Normal 
The answer to the second question – when will the business travel industry return to “normal” – is much blunter: Never. Not the normal we as we had come to know it.

Just as September 11, 2001 redefined normal for the next 20 years, the COVID-19 pandemic has levied a seismic impact on the economic, logistic, and social foundations of business travel. The 9/11 horror introduced countless variations of airport security, millions of pages of regulations, billions of dollars in cockpit door redesign, the ghastly “No Fly” list, and registration programs for lesser security risks (passengers who cross the US border frequently) that are still evolving.

All of this pales in comparison to COVID-19, which evaporated trillions of dollars in national, corporate and personal wealth in just four months. The virus shuttered every major manufacturing center in Europe and the US, isolated the Middle East, disrupted food chains, closed schools around the globe, destroyed the comfort of religious institutions, cancelled weddings and funerals, and even brought timeless methods of greeting (the handshake and the faire la bise to an end. There are now complete protocols around simply saying “hello” without touching or even getting closer than 6 feet.

One of worst aspects of the COVID-19 virus is the disruption of business operations and the destruction of confidence in established government function. The misinformation widely circulated about this disease boggles the mind. It began as a version of the flu, with potentially serious consequences only for the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.

Reports of younger people – in their 40s and 50s – contracting the disease started to circulate. Then it was folks in their 20s and sometimes children. The deceased included hospital workers, bus drivers, pregnant women, babies, convents full of nuns, doctors and waitresses. Basically anybody.

And then there were the conflicting reports of how long the virus could remain virulent on various surfaces, like plastic, shiny cardboard, stainless steel and glass (all components found in aircraft and hotel bathrooms). Suddenly, no one was sure of COVID’s incubation period other than it was a few days to two weeks (or longer). The tests were in short supply, then inaccurate, then probably accurate. The symptoms were flu-like, with a fever and a cough; unless you didn’t get the cough, nor the fever, nor any symptoms at all.

This ambiguity, coupled with a few flip-flops by the CDC and the WHO, diminished public confidence in the two organizations designed to sustain confidence by providing accurate information. Curfews, entertainment restrictions and travel shutdowns became onerous. And the quarantines seemed to last forever, whatever country you were in.

Changing Everything
Some business had to be conducted. For years, the industry heard how teleconferencing was going to change the way we did business. It sort of caught on, but it was generally a pain, subject to a lot of glitches, and required some expensive stuff. Now people are doing it all the time. This forced disruption in the way people meet is not going to go away overnight: It’s too easy and too cheap. No company is going to fail to make a cost analysis between travel and the little screen.

COVID-19 has forced many companies to decentralize, with thousands of employees working from home. Many companies have noticed that employees working from home put in longer hours at the keyboard. This is because they are not commuting, getting dressed, nor dealing with office politics. This development has freed up floors in expensive high-rise office buildings, a move that will save the average large company millions per year. This isn’t likely to go away either. But it will drop the price of real estate in major US cities.

When President Donald Trump made the decision to halt travel from China, it was considered by many leading travel industry minds to be pure draconian nonsense. The President faced far more savage criticism when he shut the borders to virtually all international travel on January 31. Twenty-six European nations followed suit, effectively ringing down the curtain on the sacred Schengen Convention. In the final analysis, protecting the lives and resources of the homeland took precedence over everything else.

In the months that followed, every nation has cancelled concerts, major sporting events, seasonal fairs and gigantic revenue-generating opportunities – like Germany’s Octoberfest – to stem the spread of COVID-19. Still, life has to go on and the limited openings of museums, cafés and other places are being carefully watched and evaluated.

This introduces a large elephant into the room. Business travel requires constant investment and a stable business environment. The precedence of closing borders in the face of a rising pandemic has been set. What nation will wait until the last minute to close its borders again to preserve life and national wealth?

While there is a burgeoning euphoria surrounding the idea of a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, major travel industry players are planning for the worst. In the US, three major airlines are predicting WARN notices (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) for thousands of employees, advising of potential layoffs and furloughs come October.

All these carriers, Delta, United, and American, are seeking voluntary employee reductions to blunt the impact of potential furloughs. While some regard this as prudent pre-emptive action, it should be noted that air traffic for the fall is projected to be a fraction of what it was this time last year. Lufthansa has announced it is looking to trim its workforce by 22,000 jobs. None of these are positive signs at this time.

Concern for fading interest in business travel under the current COVID cloud is fully justified. A series of polls taken by the Global Business Travel Association clearly indicates that chances of a resurgence in travel deteriorates with each month that passes without a vaccine. The number of travel managers who expected their travelers to resume domestic trips within 90 days fell from 60 percent to 44 percent. A similar poll conducted by MMGY Travel Intelligence showed that the number of respondents likely to take a domestic trip fell from 41 percent to 33 percent.

A Morgan Stanley survey of corporate travel managers indicated that 90 percent of 189 respondents would hold no in-person conferences or conventions, with 85 percent saying none of their travelers would attend any.

The general consensus is that travel will gradually improve, but when or how fast is very much open to debate.

What does that mean for suppliers who are barely hanging on now? The advent of a vaccine will be a game changer, especially in the US domestic market where positive market surges and employment jumps can come out of nowhere. While the November election is absolutely volatile, nimble companies are watching the wind, and getting ready to provide clients with instant access to new opportunity.

And there will be some great opportunities for buyer companies ready to bolt from the gate. This is not a challenge for weak-kneed. Some will wait for the travel market to rebound. That will be too late.

Business travelers are right to be concerned. The events of 2020 have shown the Chinese government to be unreliable in its national health reporting methods, and far less than cooperative with outside health agencies like CDC and WHO. It cannot be denied that thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Chinese nationals flew unchecked into the US and other countries when China was fully aware of a major health issue.

In the US, the CDC found itself hamstrung and caught in a political crossfire between the White House and 52 state health agencies. Europe’s WHO waffled in critical areas and emerged as being soft on China, only to be denied entry by the Chinese government anyway. The inability to correctly assess the signs and shifting symptoms of COVID-19 served to further demoralize those under quarantine.

Travelers caught up in quarantine on foreign shores found themselves at the mercy of non-standardized treatment that occasionally bordered on abandonment. Home government efforts to change things seldom appeared effective in the near term.

Picking Up the Pieces
Looking toward the future, business travelers are in for a shock. A previously pampered class of big corporate spenders, and reliable revenue generators for the industry, business travelers are about to discover the “coveted personal touch,” so much appreciated in hotels and other places, had been replaced by a philosophy of “no personal contact.”

This includes limited housekeeping, zip for room service, packaged meals for breakfast, and long waits in the few restaurants that are open but limited to reduced occupancy and “social distancing.”

Qatar Airways will supply every passenger with a standard face mask plus a clear plastic face-shield, like a welder’s mask, to be worn throughout each flight. Passengers must wear these as they board the flight. (At least they give you the masks. Many carriers expect you to bring your own.) Business class travelers may choose to forego the clear plastic shield during flight, as they enjoy more space and privacy. This is the same carrier whose cabin crews wear crime scene hazmat suits.

Different states and different countries may have very different rules for self-quarantine upon arrival. In a now famous case, a FedEx pilot in Singapore left his hotel room where he was quarantined for the night. Three hours later he was in handcuffs. This adventure earned him four weeks in a Singapore jail. Other countries have 14-day mandatory quarantines before a business traveler can make his/her first face-to-face business call.

How big does a deal have to be to spend 14-days holed up in your hotel room before venturing out? Holed up in a room with limited room service and no contact with housekeeping? And these rules can be tightened up or relaxed with very little notice.

What happens to business travelers who get sick in a foreign country – hospitalized – when the borders are suddenly closed? Who can get you out? Who pays for it? And the bigger question remains: “Is travel worth it?”

Few business travelers seem to be saying, “I’m dying to travel again.”

Oddly enough, the future of business travel is still secure. Like the Chinese meal I enjoyed at the beginning of this story, it will be a tapestry of opportunity, advantage, cost reduction, and new alliances within the industry.

These events cast long shadows, but we have been in the shadows before. Yes, travel after 9/11 was very different, but ultimately the industry did more than recover – it thrived. In the long run, it will again. In the near-term, the future of business travel hinges on a vaccine. If not one of these, then some other.

But on that hinge will swing new strategic plans paid for by the high tuition of COVID-19.