How business travel will change

In North America, business travel declined by 79 per cent from April to December last year.
In North America, business travel declined by 79 per cent from April to December last year.PHOTO: AFP

(BLOOMBERG) - It is pretty tough to put a sunny face on the future of business travel now.

But for the people at American Express, the future of corporate travel looks sort of fun.

There will be fewer transatlantic slogs for routine meetings, but more team-building exercises in sunny climes. Plus, just maybe, there will be more company-sponsored stints of telecommuting from the beach.

That is the scenario presented by Mr Evan Konwiser, executive vice-president of product and strategy for American Express Global Business Travel.

"It's become very trendy to talk about business travel not needing to come back. But business travel exists for really important reasons - it helps businesses conduct business successfully."

Normally, Mr Konwiser's division books five million hotel room nights annually. Many of those are reserved in conjunction with events and meetings, of which American Express typically organises nearly 100,000 per year.

In North America, business travel declined by 79 per cent from April to December last year.

A recent US census survey found only 26 per cent of small businesses intend to pursue any type of travel in the forthcoming six months.

Mr Konwiser predicts a re-envisioning of business travel that prioritises experiential meetings - in-person bonding opportunities for scattered remote workers and trips that feel more like work perks than obligations.

Travel as reward

"People want a break from being home," he says. "Getting to travel a week a month - that would rebalance everything enormously."

Calling travel a reward in the current climate remains a tough sell. That may change if work from home persists but Covid-19 does not. Corporate team-building trips - in which colleagues head somewhere fun to partake in scavenger hunts or cooking contests - could change the perception of business travel in a meaningful way.

If corporate culture is a reason to reinvest in business travel, cultural exchange is another. For newfound digital nomads who have spent their last year Zooming from Mexico or Belize, a change of scenery has proved inspiring and freeing.

The new passport

In the near future, you may need a vaccine passport. But Mr Konwiser says physical passports in general are on their way out. Digital visas and automated border patrol kiosks already exist. Add such up-and-coming technologies as biometric boarding, which verifies your identity with the scan of an eyeball or fingerprint, and the stamped-up booklets seem like artefacts of yesteryear.

The trick, he says, will be protecting data privacy, which he thinks can be achieved via blockchain and distributive ledgers. If this happens, such things as your most recent Covid-19 test results could also be accessed in the same digitised and encrypted portal.

Better travel apps

Hotel apps already allow you to check in and use your phone as a room key; airline apps are facilitating rebooking and will let you know if you are on an oversold flight.

The next step, he says, is "ecosystem collaboration": getting all those apps to talk to one another, eliminating the need to re-enter information and streamlining complicated processes like applying for a visa.

Imagine if the visa app, for instance, could connect to your airline and health apps to auto-fill passport, flight and vaccination information. It could cut the paperwork from 30 minutes to 30 seconds.

In general, Mr Konwiser feels business travel needs to be made easier.

"We have to remind ourselves that not everyone in the workforce has equal flexibility," he says, pointing to parents whose childcare pressures intensify when one adult is on the road. One solution he poses is for companies to provide for additional childcare in an employee's travel budget.

Then there is the question of the environmental impacts associated with corporate travel. "As an industry, we have to push for greener hotels, hold the airlines to sustainable alternatives, and help them accelerate that," he says.

He believes saving business travel is virtuous unto itself. "Business travel is a major contributor to building relationships across the globe. It's one of the ways we'll create a better future for ourselves."