Retail and consumers

Fewer trips, fewer planes: business travellers rethink old habits

Nicola Lomas spent years carefully collecting frequent-flyer points to protect her British Airways “gold” status as she flew dozens of times a year for work.

A consultant in the business travel industry, she enjoyed the perks. The queue jumps at check-in, access to lounges and priority boarding for gold members helped soothe the rigours of a hectic schedule.

So she was surprised to feel a sense of relief last year when the airline delivered the news all frequent flyers had dreaded. Lomas had been downgraded all the way to “blue”, the bottom tier, losing her benefits after progressively cutting work trips over the past few years.

“It is like a break-up in a relationship. I thought, ‘Fine, I don’t need you anymore,’” she says. “But it was a good thing. Because it has made me really think in a fresh way.”

Lomas is one of thousands of business people who have changed their travel schedules as habits have been reshaped by the rise in video conferencing during the pandemic, heightened environmental concerns and employers looking to cut costs.

Some big European and US companies have cracked down on non-essential trips, while many staff are taking longer trips to minimise repeat visits.

“You have to have a real story behind the trip to have it approved now,” one London-based banker says. Another notes that senior staff are travelling nearly as regularly as before the pandemic, but junior staff have had trips curtailed.

Business travel is not dead. Global bookings reached 70 per cent of 2019 levels in October 2023, up from 63 per cent in April, according to survey data released by the Global Business Travel Association.

Bankers and lawyers are still travelling to close deals. Sales representatives continue to value face-to-face meetings and many sectors, such as oil and gas or mining, cannot operate without shifting huge workforces around the world.

But industry executives say the forced break from business trips during Covid-19 restrictions allowed a once formulaic part of the travel industry to adapt and as a result the experience has changed.

For Lomas, the post-pandemic business landscape can be characterised as a new focus on “purposeful travel”.

For companies attempting to keep business travel costs down, this can mean getting the best value for money by making sure multiple meetings or events are crammed into a single, longer trip. This also helps to cut down on air travel, which is typically one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions for companies.

Marriott International last year said the average length of a business trip in the US had increased by 20 per cent compared with 2019.

American Express Global Business Travel, one of the world’s largest travel management companies, has also found that travellers are taking slightly longer trips and booking further in advance.

For some travellers, the changing environment has meant trading down. The rethink on business travel has come as the price of trips has increased sharply since before the pandemic. More than half of the companies surveyed by Deloitte said they had tried to mitigate the costs of trips by opting for cheaper accommodation or lower-cost flights.

Towards the end of last year, PwC imposed restrictions on UK partners travelling business class, in an attempt to reduce its carbon footprint and cut costs. Only people travelling on long-haul night flights or those flying for “business-critical” reasons are now allowed to sit in business class.

Marissa Thomas, managing partner at PwC UK, told the Financial Times at the time of the announcement that flights accounted for the majority of the company’s carbon emissions. “Given a business-class seat is roughly 50 per cent more carbon-intensive than one in premium economy, we’re asking partners and directors to think carefully about [whether] they need one,” she said.

US pharmaceutical company Parexel has, meanwhile, introduced a travel policy that encourages employees to go by train instead of by air where possible. In Germany, where it has more than 750 employees, 96 per cent of all relevant domestic trips are now taken by train, the company says.

Chris Pouney, an independent consultant in the travel industry, has consciously begun to choose the train over a plane, even when this results in longer journeys.

While only a fraction of flights across Europe can be conveniently replaced, Pouney says the train can compare favourably with air travel on “cost, carbon and convenience”, particularly as remote work is easier on board.

His trips have included an overnight journey between Munich and Milan, which he says was “an absolute joy”.

“I ordinarily would have flown that 1-1.5 hour [journey] on [a] low-cost airline . . . It was really good value on the train, and I arrived ready for business into the centre of Milan,” he says.

With employee wellbeing in focus, another growing trend is to allow employees to tack a few days’ holiday on to a business trip, or to extend their stay by working remotely from a hotel or rental apartment and enjoying the local area.

Business travel company Navan says there has been an “explosion” in these so-called “bleisure” trips, thanks to flexible travel policies and the rise in flexible working. It reported a 72 per cent increase in blended travel bookings in 2023, compared with a year earlier.

“By extending their stays for leisure activities, travellers prioritise their personal physical and mental wellbeing, which leads to higher job satisfaction and overall productivity,” the company explains.

The recovery in corporate travel since it ground to a halt during Covid restrictions has been led by small and medium-sized businesses, according to Paul Abbott, chief executive of American Express Global Business Travel, which manages corporate travel and expenses for companies.

He says using travel management services — rather than relying on employees to make their own plans and reservations — gives companies greater control over bookings, and more granular information on who is travelling and when.

“Cost pressures mean more scrutiny of budgets. Capturing travel-related emissions data is also necessary for those with carbon-reduction targets,” he says.

Oliver Ranson, managing director of consultancy Airline Revenue Economics, notes that every company has restarted business travel in different ways, making sweeping conclusions on the future of corporate travel difficult.

“It is not sector or role-specific. It is company-specific. You might have a big global media company that is flying more than ever before. Meanwhile, the other big global media company is not flying at all . . . We have never seen anything quite like it before,” he says.

For Pouney, the overarching message is to “encourage travellers to be more considered when they travel, rather than just go at the drop of a hat”.

“Sometimes you have to drop everything and get somewhere, and that’s fine but it is not every time. We all came back after Covid and saw it as an opportunity to restart with a blank piece of paper and say, ‘Let’s not go back to habits we had before.’”


Business Asia
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