As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape the world, one of the hardest-hit industries has been travel. While leisure travel is slowly recovering, business travel has lagged behind and is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels. According to a recent Morning Consult report, the share of US adults who say they travel for business is now 18 percentage points lower than it was before the pandemic. High-frequency business travelers have shown the biggest decline, with the portion of those taking three or more work-related trips per year shrinking by 11%.
The face of the business traveler has also changed significantly in the past four years. Today, more than half of business travelers (55%) earn less than $50,000 per year, and those who travel for work are more likely to be young, male, and fly in economy class. This shift in demographics is another sign that the business travel landscape has changed and is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels.
There are many reasons why business travel has shrunk in importance. First, changes in how work gets done have led to the revelation that plenty of work can be done remotely. The rise of remote and hybrid policies has meant that business travel is no longer essential for many organizations. Second, employees are simply less inclined to travel for work these days. In a 2021 Morning Consult survey, four in 10 American business travelers (39%) said they would never go on another work trip.
Corporate belt-tightening is another factor contributing to the decline in business travel. Many companies have changed their travel policies, either by reducing the number of business trips or by cutting back on which employees can go on trips. More than half of respondents in the Morning Consult survey said companies are approving fewer trips and more closely scrutinizing travel expenses. In addition, last summer, the corporate expense platform Ramp found that American companies were cutting their budgets for trips by about 25%.
The pandemic has also had a lasting impact on business travel. Companies have become more cautious about spending money on travel, and many have discovered that work can be done just as effectively using technology. With remote and hybrid work policies likely to become the norm in many organizations, it’s clear that business travel will never be what it was before the pandemic.
The airline industry, which has relied heavily on business travelers in the past, is likely to suffer as a result of this shift. While leisure travelers always outnumbered business travelers, the latter far outspent their vacationing counterparts and drove outsize revenue for the industry. In addition, travelers can expect to pay higher prices in 2023, with airfares climbing 4% in just the past month and hotel rates up 3%.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the travel industry, and business travel is unlikely to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. Changes in how work gets done, employee preferences, and corporate belt-tightening are just some of the factors contributing to this shift. The pandemic has shown that work can be done effectively using technology, and with remote and hybrid work likely to become the norm in many organizations, business travel is no longer essential for many companies. While the travel industry will continue to evolve, it’s clear that business travel as we knew it is a thing of the past.
By: M Imran Sheikh