The extraordinary year that was 2020 managed to end on a good note; with the announcement of up to 3 approved vaccines already being dispensed. Multinational organizations are likely to craft their 2021 strategic plans around this vaccine optimism. However, there is a split among management executives over how, by how much, and when business travel will rebound.
With health and hygiene concerns, coupled with global lockdowns, the pandemic put an abrupt halt on all types of travel. Organizations that were used to face-to-face meetings in workspaces across continents were forced to adapt. The rapid remote work shift upended long-held work assumptions even on how meetings are conducted.
Many say it will take years for business travel to recover, while 20% say it will never return to the level that was normal before the pandemic. Others claim that business travel might settle into a “new normal” 10% to 20% lower than it used to be — it is down more than 80% now.
Now, with the future looking up, and the business meetings on the weighing scale, where will its loyalty fall? Is it on the online platforms or will we return to the old ways of travel and doing business?
Pre-pandemic, business travel was booming in leading Business Travel Destinations like the United States, and Europe.
In fact studies show that between 2018 and 2019, US travelers alone took 462 million domestic business trips, with predictions putting this figure at nearly 500 million by 2022.
In Kenya, according to a 2019 Report from the Kenya Tourism Sector released by National Bureau of Statistics, and shared by the Global Tourism Forum Platform, global visits (both leisure and business) to Kenya came to 2,048,334 in 2019.
Total arrivals in 2018 were registered at 2,025,206. Kenya’s growth in 2019 was 1.167%. Together with the overall growth of 1.167%, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Moi International Airport showed significant growth of 6.07%, and 8.56% respectively.
This also saw Kenya go an extra mile to win Africa’s Leading Business Travel Destination 2020 at the World Travel Awards against other countries like Ghana, Egypt, South Africa. Quite a significant growth, right?
The pandemic greatly affected Kenya’s travel industry. After the announcement of the first case in the country in March, several hotels closed, and flights were grounded.
In July, when the lockdown was lifted, and the industry began to gradually reopen. However, industry players had to adapt to a new normal. Yet there are sector segments that did well since, and others that lost to the pandemic.
Despite Kenya opening its borders to international travellers later in August, the inflow of international tourists were low as pricing of hotels, and flights shifted in favour of the domestic traveller. With commercial and international travel still on a slow incline, larger airlines reduced their flights, negatively affecting their bottom line.
Even with health restrictions for passengers in place, experts predict that international air travel will return to normal as early as 2022. We are not quite sure how the space will change especially with Kenya being a top destination for business travel, however, here are our few thoughts on how will business travel change in 2021:
Although it’s likely that business travel will return in 2021, it’s also likely to be deemed non-essential in most cases. As such, there will probably be less travel in the first few months.
One of the key challenges with travel right now is that every country has been affected by the virus differently and most have different rules in place.
Some places are still locked down, and not letting non-natives enter the country. Others are refusing entry to people from certain places and in some cases ‘corridors’ have been formed to allow travel more easily between certain countries.
Because of these different rules, it is likely that business travel won’t simply resume one day. Instead, it will come back in stages as countries across the globe begin to ease their regulations.
Interestingly, the industry will also impact travel returning in stages. This is because corporate trips are more important in some industries than others, so those that don’t need to travel will be advised not to.
″On Visa’s technology team, we’ll see a level of permanent change created by the all-virtual, all-video work we’ve been doing for the last 40 weeks,” said Rajat Taneja, President of technology at Visa. She shared this in a survey gauging if business travel will return to normal with the Covid vaccine.
Humans are social beings and in one way or another we will always need and want to connect with each other.
One thing that business trips still have in their favour is the human connection, which is good not just for employees’ mental health, but also for business profits, too.
According to Harvard Business Review, a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email. A video call comes closer, but it’s still not as effective. The travel people will win in the end because people still want human interaction, it’s a business style that’s not just going to change.
Conde Nast Traveller reported that several frequent business travellers from various industries including retail, finance, and entertainment said that virtual options such as Zoom and teleconferencing won’t meet their needs in the long term.
In our last After Office Hours session, hosted by Rina Hicks, stated that at Faida Investment Bank they found it a little bit hard to adopt concepts like ‘Working from Home’ that relied on virtual conferencing options for meetings. Hence the team was requested to show up at work, but in shifts.
Rina shared that it helped teams interact far much better than they did virtually, and raised morale, concentration & productivity. This goes to show how connected we are as humans and why business travel will ultimately rise back to its glory.
As businesses maintain hybrid remote-working models and anticipate other potential disruptions in 2021 and beyond, another key prediction is that this year we will see the role of automation, and AI use cases in the workplace grow.
These may include enabling efficient day-to-day communications between knowledge workers doing their jobs from home and automating invoicing, and expenses to keep valued partners paid and to preserve budgets.
We will also see more businesses leaning on AI algorithms to make quick decisions backed by real-time financial transparency in order to meet the business needs brought on by the pandemic.
This includes managing spending in near real-time to improve budget management and liquidity, increasing compliance and eliminating errors and maximizing profitability. We will also see more business travelers utilize paperless boarding passes and itinerary solutions.
There are some countries that have become extremely popular for business travel in recent decades and there are certainly some destinations that we traditionally associate with corporate trips.
However, it is likely that the pandemic will have changed the global map and that some of these popular countries will change.
For example, some popular destinations for business travel include Germany, Spain (home to Mobile World Congress), and Italy but Europe was very adversely hit by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Similarly, the USA (home to big tech events like Consumer Electronic Show that has since gone virtual), United Arab Emirates, and Japan are all popular destinations for corporate trips but with so many cases they may be reluctant to let people in and out of these countries.
Another thing that might impact the most popular destinations for business travel is the corridors where some governments have worked to create a list of countries (called corridors) in which travelers can go without having to self-isolate for 2 weeks.
This period of self-isolation will play a big role in which countries businessmen and women choose to travel to in the future. It will be up to the tourism sectors in each country to communicate with the business traveler providing them with the best, safest and user friendly option.
Though many may be itching to get back to how things were and to resume business travel, it’s best not to rush things.
As such, travel in 2021 might be increasingly virtual, with more meetings being conducted using video technology unless a face-to-face meeting is essential.
Small organizations will still look for ways they can recover their revenues and probably cut costs on expenses and maybe for larger corporates business travels priorities will be given to C-suite, salespeople and essential workers.
As mentioned earlier, virtual meetings might not always offer quite the same experience as meeting in person but we’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to the virus and many businesses might feel more comfortable erring on the side of caution, at least for a few more months.
With more countries introducing more stringent measures more will be required of these travellers.
Travel providers, including hotels, airlines, rail providers, ridesharing and car rental services, may require travelers to disclose their COVID-19 health status.
This could range from COVID-19 or antibody test results, including rapid testing right at the gate or rental car pickup, to proof of vaccination once it is universally available.
As border policies change with the rise and fall of regional COVID-19 case numbers, companies will require employees to comply with government guidelines, such as quarantine requirements before and after trips.
More mainstream mask requirements are also a possibility, with travelers proving compliance through documentation throughout the trip that they have complied with mask mandates.
Also while planning, any form of corporate travel will not be taken lightly and there will be a need for extra measures and planning when booking a trip.
Companies might now opt for travel planners or agencies to arrange and book the trip as they will be most knowledgeable about current restrictions and the safest places to go and stay.
The good news is that more countries are opening up their borders, and changing quarantine policies. In the past, traveling was either for leisure or business trips. But with the rise of remote working, many organizations, and individuals will be taking their work on the road opting for longer stays rather than a quick trip.
It might see business travellers mix business, personal and family leisure trips especially now that the physical confines of work or school are no longer there. However, because working from a hotel, leased apartment or co-living room remains tricky due to the many distractions
“Social experiences, like a meal or drink together, are hard to have on video. So for me and my team, I think we will have travel but it will be for unstructured work that requires more presence, more ideation and more energy from each other,” shared Rajat Taneja, President of technology at Visa.
The longer business travel stays may also be brought about by the fact that business travelers may be expected to combine multiple meetings into one trip, especially given the likely increase in the cost of travel.
Therefore, if the plan is to earn a living while on the road, then the savvy business traveller will need an established working space such as Nairobi Garage.
Our three locations in the heart of Kenya, offer strong Wi-Fi, kitchens, and lounges. The spaces also have sky booths where you can make phone calls without interruptions, and you can hold private meetings with your teams, and clients in our meeting rooms.
Working from a shared space also improves social interaction allowing you to expand your professional network, even in a foreign country. Making new business connections also helps beat any loneliness that you might be experiencing while on the road.
In conclusion, the definition of ‘necessary & basic requirements’ for business travel will evolve. However, there will remain the need to replenish old & create new business relationships.
For the organizations that saved a significant amount of funds in 2020 and may have a renewed burst of energy & purpose to travel, will do so once it’s safe to congregate again.
In the interim technology, such as video conferencing, will have to continue until all potential health risks are mitigated, and managed.