Despite widespread COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. and other countries, business travel—both domestic and global—won’t see a resurgence anytime soon, according to nearly 500 business and talent leaders surveyed by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) for its late-June 2021 Getting Employees Vaccinated research series.
As of July 4th, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reported that 157.3 million people in the U.S., about 47% of the total population, were fully vaccinated; about 55% had received at least one vaccine dose. The BBC reported June 20 figures for the European Union, noting that about half of adults in the EU had received at least one dose, and 28% were fully vaccinated. However, the i4cp research found that those levels aren’t sufficient to restore (or grow) pre-pandemic levels of travel for most organizations.
Asked about their expectations of business travel for their employees in the coming 12 months, a combined 62% of those surveyed anticipated that domestic levels will be below or significantly below those seen pre-pandemic. For global travel, that combined figure was 48%. Further, 24% of survey participants (half of whom represented global or multinational organizations) said they anticipated no global business travel for their employees in the coming year; 5% expected no domestic business travel.
While the survey data clearly skewed toward less travel, just over one in five respondents anticipated that their organizations’ domestic business travel would match or exceed pre-pandemic levels; only 8% said the same of global travel.
By way of comparison, when i4cp posed a similar query (not specifying the 12-month timeframe) to business leaders in April 2021, 41% said they were planning to resume business travel for fully vaccinated employees, though more than half of those respondents did not expect travel to equal pre-pandemic levels.
Significantly cutting back on business travel suggests that organizations may need to strengthen their strategies for building and sustaining relationships with customers, prospects, suppliers, and other affected stakeholders via video, phone, social media, or other interactions.
Some companies, such as agribusiness and food production leader (and i4cp member company) Land O’Lakes—have already taken steps to redefine traditionally travel-intensive sales jobs, looking for components of the work that can be performed differently. At the same time, Land O’Lakes and other organizations acknowledge that the traditional in-person aspects of selling, customer relations, and other business imperatives aren’t going away.
Because the term business travel encompasses broad applications, the projected decrease can also have ramifications for employee and leadership development as fewer individuals journey to conferences and other learning events. Talent acquisition efforts may require rethinking due to dampers on sourcing-related travel. Marketing, purchasing, research and development, community relations, and other functions easily can see the effects of curtailed travel, too.
Write-in comments from participants in the June i4cp survey raise additional points and serve as reminders that even when companies don’t restrict travel, other factors can. One respondent cited unexpected travel “freezes” that result from spikes in COVID-19 virus levels or surges in variants that make travel to affected areas inadvisable, if not impossible. Another noted that some countries still limit incoming travel.
A business leader in a Canadian manufacturing firm added that her organization experienced challenges when suppliers, vendors, and strategic partners restricted employee travel, resulting in adverse effects on service delivery.
The i4cp research makes it clear that the coming year will see varied fallout attributable to business travel constraints. And that diminished travel will challenge organizations to do more of what they’ve been doing since the onset of the pandemic—find new and different ways of accomplishing the activities that keep companies not only in business, but growing.
For more information, download Getting Employees Vaccinated —the latest in our ongoing examination of vaccination and COVID-19-related business concerns and responses.
Carol Morrison is an i4cp senior research analyst