Zoom meetings have fundamentally altered how and why people hit the road for work. Now “bleisure” and “return to base” are corporate travel buzzwords in the new normal.
Just over two years ago, Romano Nickerson was traveling three days or more per week for client meetings and attending four conferences a year. But his road-warrior lifestyle came to a screeching halt in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nickerson, a 48-year-old principal in the Colorado-based architectural consulting firm Boulder Associates, soon discovered that nearly all of his in-person meetings could be handled virtually.
Today Nickerson says he is “treating an in-person meeting as being much more precious than it was in the past, when it was sort of just this default.” Just back from his first business trip since March 2020, he does not expect to go back to living out of a suitcase. Nor does he believe that his 150-employee firm will revert to pre-pandemic business-travel habits anytime soon. “We still have a policy that allows folks to follow their own comfort level,” Nickerson says. “Right now, there is still very, very little business travel going on. I would estimate maybe a dozen trips per month, when it was probably four or five times that at its peak.”
The challenge for the business-travel sector, of course, is that even if Covid eventually goes away, Zoom will still be here. Nickerson is but a single drop in a sea of executives reassessing the value of work trips in a new normal where web conferencing is not only essential but, for many in the workforce, preferred. That trend is not going away, and it’s spawning new catch phrases like “bleisure” and “return to base.” According to Morning Consult data, the percentage of frequent business travelers who say they’ll never return to the road has ticked up from 39% in October 2021 to 42% in February 2022.
At a New York Times event back in November 2020, Bill Gates sent a chill through the travel industry when he predicted that more than 50% of business travel and more than 30% of days worked in offices would go away permanently. “Now that it’s not the gold standard to say, ‘Yes, you flew all the way over to sit in front of me,’ and that you can do the virtual connection, it will be a very high threshold for actually doing that business trip,” the Microsoft co-founder said.
In 2019, business travel had injected $334 billion dollars in spending into the U.S. economy and supported 2.5 million jobs, according to the U.S. Travel Association. If Gates were right, the American economy would stand to lose at least $167 billion dollars per year post-pandemic.
“We are undergoing the biggest change to travel since the advent of commercial flying.”