Wuhan virus thwarts business travellers who 'need to be in the room'

Passengers making inquiries at a counter at the Los Angeles International Airport as flights continue to be cancelled due to fears of the coronavirus, on Feb 1, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Mr Alex Richter had a choice: Stay or go.

As the director of an industrial parts supplier in Toronto, Mr Richter does a lot of business in China. This month, he was scheduled to visit several Chinese cities to conduct quality-control assessments and meet with local partners.

But the recent spread of the deadly coronavirus, which has claimed more than 250 lives and prompted businesses in China to shut down, gave him second thoughts.

So this past week, Mr Richter put the question up for a vote, inviting his Twitter followers to weigh in on three possibilities: "cancel," "postpone" or "business comes first."

Almost all of the 24 respondents voted for "cancel" or "postpone." A few days later, Air Canada made the debate moot, cancelling flights to China, including the one Mr Richter had booked. But he had already decided that the trip was not worth the hassle.

"All the businesses are closed, so your business agenda would be completely lost," he said. "There'd be no point going anyway, because nobody's working. It's like a ghost town."

The growing uncertainty about the safety of travelling to China is bedeviling companies large and small around the world and rippling through global supply chains. It has also put a halt to corporate travel.

On Friday (Jan 31), Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines cancelled all their flights to China, and the Trump administration said it would place restrictions on travellers, giving companies no choice but to postpone business trips.

Ms Nancy Williams Painter, a Seattle-based vice-president of design for textile manufacturer Hemp Fortex, said she had to cancel a trip to China after the airlines announced that they would no longer fly there.

"I wanted to go anyway next week," she said. "If they hadn't cancelled air flights, I didn't feel like I couldn't go."

She wasn't the only business traveller reluctant to put off a long-planned visit.

Mr Sammy Bernard, who runs a fashion brand in Nigeria, is scheduled to fly to Beijing on Feb 12 to meet with fabric suppliers. (He booked the trip through the airline Emirates, which has not cancelled flights to China.)

For the last couple of days, Mr Bernard has been debating whether to go. On one hand, he does not want to be the person responsible for introducing a deadly virus in Nigeria. On the other, he needs to make business contacts in China, where fabric is "cheaper and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper," he said.

For now, he's planning to go.

"I don't want to be contaminated," Mr Bernard said. But "with the face masks and the nose masks and a lot of warnings, I'm going to be protected".

In the United States, several major companies, including Goldman Sachs, General Motors and Wells Fargo, have imposed travel limitations on employees. And analysts are projecting that the disruption could have a sizable impact on China's economy, at least in the short term.

The obvious point of comparison is the Sars outbreak in 2002 and 2003, which coincided with a relatively brief slowdown of global growth, then a sharp acceleration. Two decades later, however, China is an economic powerhouse, a vital manufacturing hub and a centre of global trade with deep ties to practically every major industry.

"The much larger role of China in the global economy versus 2003 implies much greater global spillover risks," economists at JPMorgan wrote in a research note on Friday.

It has also meant that many more people visit the country for work.

Mr Andy Payne, the founder of AppyNation, a video game company in England, said he had scrapped two visits to China scheduled for February.

He was planning to meet representatives of a Chinese media company to discuss a partnership. But Wednesday, British Airways cancelled all flights to mainland China. Now those gaming negotiations will take place in a video chat.

"If you're working on a fairly significant deal, you need to be in the room, looking the guys in the eyes," Mr Payne said. "It's just going to put more time into it, and time is money."

China is not the only global business hub that is increasingly off limits to travelling businesspeople because of the coronavirus. Entrepreneur First, a start-up accelerator in London, cancelled a major pitch event in Singapore, where there have been more than a dozen confirmed cases.

"Flying in so many people from across infected areas and then putting them all in one room seemed like a bad idea," said Mr Matt Clifford, the founder of Entrepreneur First. "It's pretty gutting for our start-ups and our team."

In Toronto, Mr Richter said his company, Karl W. Richter, had enough inventory to weather the travel issues and the disruption to its Chinese partners, which supply hydraulic tube fittings and other machine components.

Nor is Mr Richter concerned about getting sick on future trips. Because of the sheer number of people in China, he said, the chances of catching the virus are slim.

"I will probably go in March," he said.

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