What business travel will look like in the new normal

Entering an airport, flying, and staying at a hotel will never be the same, observers say.

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People have some pretty strong feelings about what the future of travel will look like in the new normal and many think that most of what travelers were used to—like long airport security lines, crowded restaurants, and a chaotic boarding process—will go the way of free peanuts.

"In the blink of an eye, business travel went from a high-status activity to an embarrassment," wrote Ben Pring, vice president of Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work, in his futuristic report, "After the Virus," which imagines life in 2025. 

"Business travel, it turned out, was not the engine of commerce we'd thought it was. And those who still hop on a plane to get to a business conference find they've got some 'splaining' to do."

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The report also envisions that just as 9/11 spawned the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), and completely changed the flying experience, the COVID-19 pandemic will prompt new health screening guidelines for travel because "each and every one of us is regarded as a threat." Just like TSA, a pre-approval system will be established so people can enroll at home via telemedicine and take a scan up to four hours before their travel time to certify they're not carrying any infectious disease, the report said.

The US Travel Association recently released new guidelines for travel and hotels, including enhanced hygiene and cleaning measures, limiting physical contact between staff and customers, and installing physical barriers to ensure a safe distance.

Lower travel volume and more virtual events

Joseph Landes, chief revenue officer of cloud provider Nerdio, who used to travel for business several times a week, agrees that "business travel is changed forever. There is no question about it. Not because of masks, distancing, or less comfortable boarding processes, but because the pandemic will force people to rethink if each trip is necessary."

Landes said he has gotten used to interacting over Microsoft Teams and Zoom and realizes people can be productive using technology. "I predict many fewer trips will be taken and we will see a secular downtrend in business travel," thanks to technologies like video conferencing and VDI, which "will create much less of a need to meet in person other than for large trade shows and conferences."

Companies spend more than $111.7 billion on business travel every year and the average cost of a typical business trip last year was $1,286, according to a new report by Motus, which provides reimbursement software for businesses with mobile-enabled workforces.

"As a result of COVID-19's travel restrictions, and health concerns from both companies and their team members, there's been a boom in virtual events and business meetings, just by sheer necessity," said Ken Robinson, a market research analyst at Motus. "After being forced to rely on virtual meetings, many people are surprised at how effective they can be. We think that this will keep business travel at lower levels for at least the next six to nine months."

If major outbreaks are avoided in the future, confidence in travel is likely to recover, Robinson predicted. "However, even if people feel safe, it would not be surprising to see lower levels of business travel spend in the future, as adding efficiency and flexibility to top line expenses will be a very high priority for business leaders for months to come," as evidence has shown plenty of alternatives to business travel.

Use of biodata will become the norm

"Once travel opens up, biodata will likely become the new fingerprint/iris scan for travelers," said Alex Heid, chief research and development officer at security ratings platform provider SecurityScorecard.

"As of now, many of the biometric technologies that are used for travel within the US are in the form of opt-in programs and are offered as a convenience service from private companies as opposed to a mandatory procedure from a government," Heid said.

Yet, there are instances where biometric data is required by the US government, such as in the case of passport photographs, which are scanned for biometrics when being processed, he said. Many airport kiosk systems take photographs of all arrivals and correlate the photograph to the passport, he noted.

"Not only will this become prevalent in the travel industry but consumer use of biometrics will likely increase significantly as well; while such technologies used to be for border crossings, now it is used for something as routine as from unlocking a smartphone," Heid added.

Travel volume will take years to recover, and may not recover at all, he said. Business travel will be minimal in the next several months and only for very essential jobs, he said.

Slow, partial comeback

Of course, many businesses require travel as part of their basic function. Heid said they expect these businesses to be back to 70% of their previous travel levels in six months and back to 85% within a year. But he cautioned that "between likely higher flight prices in the long run and the economic blowback from the pandemic, it's hard to imagine even enthusiastic scenarios in which travel—even for businesses that aren't working when not traveling—returns." 

Business travel will never return to what it was before, said Simone Collins, CEO of Travelmax, a corporate travel management company specializing in entertainment, sports, and production travel.

"People traveled very casually before the pandemic—far more…than they really needed to," Collins said. "Those days are behind us. Flying is now going to be less predictable, more expensive in the long run, and more 'icky' feeling," because it will be hard not to think about germs, no matter how clean planes actually are. "People are going to think long and hard before buying a plane ticket," she said.

That said, there may be an uptick in business travel in certain instances, Collins said.

"The pandemic is opening many eyes to the value and arbitrage opportunities associated with remote teams and working from home,'' she said. "If businesses start hiring people in further-away states with lower-cost labor markets, they may fly these people around…for the occasional in-person meeting and team-building exercise."

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By Esther Shein

Esther Shein is a longtime freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in several online and print publications. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of Datamation, a managing editor at BYTE, and a senior writer at eWeek (formerly PC Week)...