If there’s one thing this pandemic has revealed, it’s that business travel was never anything more than one gigantic jolly. Call it a gravy train, if you like, or a big trough of goodies into which people stuck their heads and scoffed. Look at the figures from 2019: an absurd, obscene U.S. $1.3 trillion was spent on business travel that year — much of it, I’d wager, completely without justification.
Why am I so sure of this? Because, since March of this year, hardly anyone has flown anywhere. Not on business, anyway. Folk who used to fly twice a week, often long haul, haven’t so much as set foot in an airport for nine months. Those posh business suits have been mothballed, the spare toothbrush chucked in the bottom drawer, the frequent flyer apps deleted, and the gold cards cut in two.
If business folk are honest, many would admit they rather miss all that travel they pretended to find arduous.
But have their businesses suffered? Not really. Not much. I spoke to one chap who runs an international marketing communications consultancy, and he’s doing significantly better this year than last. That’s because he’s slashed his costs — not just on travel (he used to spend more time away than at home), but also his central-London office and associated hardware and client entertainment. Yet he’s got the same amount of business coming in as in 2019. Meanwhile, a friend of mine runs a PR company providing services to … wait for it … airlines and hotels. I know what you’re thinking. But no. He’s just hired two more staff to supplement his growing team.
Tragically, lots of other businesses have endured hardship this year, not least in the hospitality sector. But the success stories are too numerous to ignore. The savior, of course, has been technology — Zoom, Teams, WebEx, BlueJeans, Google, and GoTo. We’ve used them all, and others. What these technologies (I can’t bear that word “platforms”) have proved is that we can conduct international business meetings and conferences perfectly well and at zero cost without traveling farther than the kitchen table.
No wonder, then, learned experts are predicting that a good third, and maybe more, of all business travel will permanently be lost, despite COVID vaccines and the prospect of a return to something like the old normal in the first half of 2021. After all, even seven-year-olds know that companies will do what makes them money, and if they can make more cash by doing no travel, then, so the logic suggests, that’s exactly what they’ll do.
And yet I can’t quite bring myself to accept this. Not in full, anyway. Something’s nagging away at me, and telling me that money won’t be the only consideration. There’s definitely another issue here. Yes, it’s that cushiness factor. If business folk are honest, many would admit they rather miss all that travel they pretended to find arduous — those airport lounges with their free booze, often quite reasonable food, comfy chairs and newspapers all lined up; the range of new releases that you can scroll through at 30,000 feet while being plied with champagne; and the crisp, freshly-ironed sheets as you sink into bed in your hotel room and look out at the twinkling lights of a city in some or other exotic location. Are they really going to give all that up, for good, just to save a few quid? Or bucks?
I admit it. Lovely though I’ve found these last nine months being at home 24/7 with the family in gentle, peaceful Kent; convenient though it is to conduct everything online, without even stepping outside my front door; and reassuring though it may be it that work has been ticking over not too badly, I secretly yearn for that thrill and buzz of excitement and adventure I used to get when, at some ungodly hour, I would see the flashing headlights of the taxi in my driveway and know that I’d shortly be off to Heathrow, and then on to to some distant location, preferably about 25 degrees warmer than England — which it usually was.
I’m not alone in making this sordid admission, thank goodness. A colleague of mine who used to do plenty of work with me and various others out in Bahrain (in embarrassing luxury, though we never complained to anyone) recently sent out a few naughty home videos to our WhatsApp group. No, not grainy footage of scantily clad Arabian ladies, but enticing little clips of the business class seats on the plane and the executive-floor rooms at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Manama. “Remember this feeling?” he teased. “Yes, I bloomin’ do!” I thought to myself, drooling over them like a dog about to be fed its dinner. “Only too well.” Yet, in the era of lockdowns, it seems like a different planet. An impossible dream.
I claim no expertise as a business or technology forecaster. Far from it. I have every sympathy with that chap, Thomas Watson, president of IBM in the 1940s, who apparently said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” I’d probably have guessed three — one for America, one for Russia, and a spare. But I’m as sure as I can be that once we’re no longer scared rigid of catching the dreaded lurgy, and even if video-conferencing technology continues to advance apace, which it surely will, thereby making business travel even more completely unnecessary than it already is, business folk will quickly find an excuse to hop on a plane and sup from that trough as though Zoom had never been invented.
Because if there’s one thing that motivates us even more than raw money, it’s a bit of cush.