The distributed work environment is changing the when – and the why – of many business trips
By Mark Rowh
Of all the changes wrought by COVID-19, perhaps the most widely felt will be the trend toward work-from-home. Of course, the practice was not new even before the virus prompted mass shutdowns. But given its acceleration since 2020, there’s little doubt that remote work is likely here to stay. In fact, a recent GBTA/HRS study found that two in three travel managers (67 percent) reported they anticipate a hybrid schedule as companies fully reopen offices. And over 80 percent of companies now have some proportion of fully remote employees.
Opinions are not uniform, though, on just how these trends will affect business travel. In October’s GBTA Business Travel Recovery Poll, nearly three quarters of respondents (72 percent) from companies with a hybrid or full-time remote work policy reported they don’t expect the practice to affect the number of business trips taken by their employees. At the same time, the remainder are evenly split, with 14 percent of respondents expecting it will lead to more business travel, while the same percentage expect the trend will lead to traveling less.
Contrary to observations about the shift to work-from-home and its negative impact on business travel, trends actually seem to be going in the opposite direction, says Larry Cuculic, president and CEO of BWH Hotel Group. While business travelers are being more selective and outcome-focused when it comes to travel, they’re back on the road participating in strategic meetings and other valuable face-to-face interactions.
"We're also finding that the shift to allow remote work, and the challenges to finding good talent in market, has forced businesses to hire outside of where they are located,” Cuculic says. "The result is associates are traveling to offices to meet with colleagues at their headquarters."
Alisa de Gaspe Beaubien, CEO of Groupize, draws a distinction between work-from-home and a dispersed workforce. "If you are working from home and your office was previously in daily commuting distance, then travel/business travel expectations should not be impacted. However, if you are an employee that is located farther from what the company considers base, then most employees will likely be expected to travel for internal meetings,” she notes. “It’s important to separate these trends from road warriors."
Changing Patterns Regardless of such distinctions, the distributed workforce is traveling again, but in somewhat different ways, says Richard Johnson, senior director solutions group at CWT. As an example, he points to a decline in one-day trips. "These trips were once seen as a way to reduce travel budgets as you could save on the hotel cost," Johnson explains. "But the growing emphasis on sustainability and employee well-being has resulted in some of these being replaced by online meetings, with travelers taking fewer and longer trips instead.”
Southwest Airlines is also seeing business travel continue to evolve as more roles move fully into remote or hybrid-type settings, reports Dave Harvey, vice president of Southwest Business. “Overall, there is continuous improvement in the managed travel side of our business and we continue to welcome more business travelers onboard,” Harvey says.
Like Johnson, he notes a trend toward travelers making slightly less frequent trips but staying for a longer duration. “There’s also a larger number of unique new business travelers needing to travel as they’ve either moved to a different city or are in a more flexible work arrangement,” Harvey says. “We’ve also noticed a big uptick for small and medium-sized gatherings and events as teams reconnect for training, innovation and culture.”
Other elements in the flow of business travel are evolving too, Cuculic notes, citing the example of peak days for business travel expanding beyond the traditional Tuesday-Thursday pattern, which is creating more arrivals on Sunday and departures on Friday. "And the demand for secondary and tertiary markets has grown throughout the pandemic and continues today."
Perhaps more than ever, flexibility is the name of the game. “Highly-skilled employees increasingly demand flexibility," says Miriam Moscovici, vice president partnerships and research for BCD Travel. "Some would like to move to another city or country and work remotely from there. Others would like to work remotely during long trips to the destinations of their choice."
When it comes to corporate travel in a post-pandemic environment, Moscovici adds that employees want to decide when to travel for themselves, and they want a simple trip approval process that prioritizes direct or nonstop flights. Given such preferences, the availability of flexible working can affect both a company’s image and its bottom line. "If companies don’t listen to their employees, they risk losing some of their highest-performing employees," she notes. "Offering remote working is increasingly seen as a perk, helping to retain workers and attract new employees from a global talent pool."
Opportunity Knocks Despite the challenges of the past couple of years, the latest trends are bringing new opportunities, according to Christiane Cabot Bini, executive director, corporate travel sales for Hilton. She says Hilton believes in the power of in-person meetings and events, and shares the company’s optimism about the continued return and growth of business travel.
“Every company and team is different, but the return on investment, at large, for business travel has been proven time and time again,” she says. “And we’re confident that teams will find the balance that they need.”
Many companies took the pandemic as an opportunity to dig deeper into their travel programs and approval processes, according to Janine Alsalam, vice president of sales at Cvent. Now is the time to bring those processes to life, she says. Travel costs have grown and it’s important that business travel buyers leverage their travel programs to get the best rates in all the locations. "It’s also important to consider traditional business travel, as well as meetings and events, when negotiating with preferred suppliers – and work to drive as much of their business as possible to their top suppliers,” she advises.
Alsalam adds that going forward, travel management can benefit from the sophistication of virtual and hybrid event technology. The latest solutions offer ways to blend a variety of formats to manage budgets, while maintaining engagement with important internal and external audiences.
"Hybrid event technology in particular can be really beneficial for companies managing budgets and those hosting events, whether those are small business meetings or major conferences," she says.
Cuculic is already seeing this now with broad recognition of the importance of workers spending time together. Additionally, with staffing trends being what they are, business for his group has increased significantly. "And it's more than traditional workforce travel as businesses are hiring from other US markets, or even from other countries, to help fully staff their organizations," he explains.
The landscape looks similar to leaders at Hyatt Hotels, according to Gus Vonderheide, vice president of global sales-enterprise corporate and transient. "Our corporate travel partners are telling us that getting people back together is increasingly important as connectivity helps not only retain current clients but seed new business opportunities," he says. "This has created a renewed focus by many companies, including our customers, to encourage in-person meetings to form new business relationships, strengthen their lead pipelines and establish a level of trust that can only be built through face-to-face interaction."
Gathering Places In supporting travelers, the demand for an appealing environment may play an increasing role, according to Mark Sergot, SVP, global sales for IHG Hotels and Resorts. “Travelers have spent the last few years creating new routines for work and relaxation they’ll likely want to maintain as they return to travel,” Sergot says. “This includes an environment that promotes community and collaboration while also allowing for rest and relaxation.”
In the groups and meetings segment, the return to travel has included material increases in small and midsize meeting opportunities compared to a couple of years ago, with a focus on building team culture and cultivating stronger relationships. IHG expects to see these types of meetings continue to drive recovery in this segment in 2023. Another upward trend has been in reward and recognition travel, according to Shauna Whitehead, VP, customer solutions for BCD Meetings and Events. "This makes sense given companies are conscious of looking to retain top talent and cultural connection, while managing cost and accelerating productivity wherever possible. Travel and meetings are key enablers for the workplace of the future.”
In the same vein, the trend toward blending work and home life can be seen in growing interest in “bleisure” travel. In the GTBA survey, two in five travel managers (41 percent) noted an increase in employees asking for blended travel, where a business trip could be combined with a vacation or leisure component.
It may also be true that where local travel is concerned, working from home doesn’t necessarily mean staying at home. Travel for meetings is predominant in driving activity and there is a strong trend toward smaller group collaborations in offices. "It means less workspaces and more collaboration spaces, which is driving companies to rethink their office footprint, design and space management,” Whitehead points out.
“Even if employees typically work from home, they might benefit from having occasional access to an office,” says Martin Biermann, chief product officer for HRS. This might include holding regular meetings with clients or customers rather than inviting customers to their home or holding an all-day meeting at a restaurant or hotel. “Companies might also hold working groups with internal colleagues and need a space where employees can plug in and collaborate.” Meeting such needs may involve exploring non-traditional workspace scenarios that may provide collaboration options for employee groups at minimized expense.
In managing transitions to off-site or hybrid work, Biermann advises staying engaged with all entities within the organization that are affected by hybrid work scenarios, especially HR, procurement, sales and account management. Also worth considering is integrating new solutions such as automated procurement for transient/meeting/long-stay volume that are seamless to travelers while providing new insight to management on travel patterns and anticipated costs.
Cuculic recommends leveraging procurement deals and relationships that are already in place, such as having travelers stay at preferred hotels in order to help manage travel costs. He noted this was a major driver of the formation of BWH Hotel Group which brought together the WorldHotels Collection, Best Western Hotels and Resorts, and SureStay Hotel Group to offer options in every market segment.
Open communication is a key, Bini concludes. "If the pandemic taught us anything, it was that travel is an unstoppable force,” she says. Bini advises posing questions to travelers on a frequent basis and listening closely to the answers, and then being willing and ready to evolve quickly as needs and preferences change. “Additionally, engage your supplier partners as we are here to help you solve problems and fully realize opportunities.”
Looking to the future, Moscovici notes that while internal meetings are the most vulnerable to substitution by virtual technologies, anyone finding themselves in a team made up of remote workers will need to meet face-to-face, even if it’s only occasionally.
“What used to be a commute to the office now becomes a business trip to a location, which might be more convenient for all meeting attendees,” she says. “Future travel patterns will likely change with remote work potentially leading to more travel, as the commuter of yesterday becomes the business traveler of tomorrow.”