A number of companies are starting to bring employees back to the office as vaccine rollout ramps up. Could business travelers return to the airways sooner than later?
The U.S. vaccine rollout has steadily increased since December. Now, more than 93 million adults have had a minimum of one dose and more than 51 million are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data. A number of companies have started to bring employees back to the traditional office as COVID-19-related restrictions ease.
Earlier this month, the CDC released guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. While the airline industry remains in recovery mode, what does the latest CDC guidance mean for business travelers in the months ahead?
"While CDC travel recommendations currently remain limited to 'essential' activities, nearly everyone I know is busy planning or booking their summer getaways. Businesses are also beginning to prepare for travel en masse," said Danny Finkel, chief travel officer at TripActions.
"In fact, the number one concern we're hearing from executives is how they will prepare for the expected tidal wave of travel requests from their organizations — and how to best ramp up their travel programs and back into gear," Finkel continued.
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In light of the CDC's vaccination guidance, Finkel said organizations have to consider "whether they [will] have differentiated travel policies" for vaccinated employees and employees who have not been inculcated, although he notes that this "period is likely to be short" stateside due to the speed of the vaccination rollout.
While some companies have started to bring employees back to the in-person office, other organizations (including notable tech companies) have many long-term commitments to remote work in the years ahead.
In the interim, Finkel said many offices are still closed and this means business travel will continue to be "inherently limited since there are fewer places to travel."
"That being said, as more people get vaccinated and more cities ease restrictions, we will undoubtedly see more people returning to regular working environments, which will dramatically open up business travel opportunities," Finkel said.
Many hotels are offering deal sweeteners to attract potential travelers approaching the summer months. Earlier this month, Finkel said TripActions' travel trends data showed that bookings on the platform increased 47% since the first week of February and this surge illustrates "the uptick in business travel as vaccine rollouts increase."
Discussing the potential return of business travel, Finkel said he believes we are "getting excitingly close to a tipping point."
"We are hearing it from our customers, we are seeing it in our networks, and we are ramping up for our own company's return to travel. Because of inconsistent global vaccine rollouts and restrictions, international business travel will likely lag, but I expect domestic business travel to increase rapidly in the months to come — indeed, it already has."
As one would imagine, bringing employees back to the traditional office or deploying representatives on business trips amid a modern plague comes with no shortages of challenges from logistical, legal and public health standpoints.
As companies attempt to restart business travel in the months ahead, Finkel discussed a number of these challenges including "verifying" vaccination credentials before allowing employees to travel, "inconsistent restrictions" on travel in areas around the globe and "properly" budgeting travel and expense "as this line item virtually disappeared for the last 12 months."
Additionally, Finkel said another challenge for employers involved "finding the right balance between encouragement and not making employees feel required to get back on the road."
Earlier this month, President Biden said every U.S. adult will be eligible for vaccination by May 1 and more than 15% of the total U.S. population (or about one in seven people) is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
For the time being, airline travel remains well below its pre-pandemic levels, but coronavirus-related restrictions have been eased around the U.S. as organizations plan for the post-pandemic "new normal" more than one year after the first COVID-19 cases.
"It's really exciting to see the early signs of recovery. After a year of virtually no travel, I have multiple itineraries booked, including both leisure and business," Finkel said. "We know that travel will look different with distributed workforces, but we are also confident that when people are ready to travel, the travel industry is more than ready to welcome them back."
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