In the midst of a pandemic, the future of business travel looks undeniably bleak – but Zoom won’t kill it. Studies in behavioural science show that we often underestimate our ability to adapt to life-changing events, and this situation is no different.
Deserted airports resemble ghost towns, as nervous masked passengers navigate empty departure lounges waiting for flights that may never come.
Government restrictions and broader economic downturns, quarantine periods, constrained corporate travel budgets and a lack of confidence in keeping safe in a COVID-19 world add to the certainty that business travel, as we know it, is dead.
"History, however, consistently proves that we are incredible innovators, able to respond to a crisis and create formerly unseen pathways." – Dan Monheit
On top of these issues is the challenge for corporations to keep up with evolving health and safety policies when the alternative is sitting safe and comfortable in our sweatpants on a Zoom conference call.
Projections by the International Air Transport Association state that global air travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. Hence, it’s easy to believe that we already know what the future holds – what behavourial scientists refer to as projection bias.
History, however, consistently proves that we are incredible innovators, able to respond to a crisis and create formerly unseen pathways.
Companies that once confidently traversed the globe in search of new knowledge, connections and social capital are now redefining what their future business interactions might look like.
Now it appears we don’t need a long-haul flight to Singapore to seal the deal or a luxury hotel in Puglia to participate in peer-to-peer knowledge exchange – all you need is a link.
It’s easy to imagine video teleconferencing on Zoom or virtual reality technologies with their online 24-hour timetable accessed by people all over the world, will replace corporate travel and face-to-face conferences in post-pandemic business communication.
But does projection bias mean we’ve negated the power of the human-to-human connection?
The pure exchange of information is not, and has never been, the only or even the primary reason for business travel.
Much of the debate talks as if business travel is a completely rational decision compared to a more emotional one, like leisure travel. Yet this is not the case. Remember, we had Zoom in January too.
Albert Mehrabian, a prolific researcher in the field of communication, found that our words alone carry only 7% of what we communicate. Non-verbal cues, including our tone (38%) and gestures (55%) are where the majority of what we mean is actually conveyed. Our tone and gestures are both severely hampered through video conferencing, especially when compared to face-to-face interaction.
For many, travelling for business is a perk of the job or, indeed, part of a salary package. Yet it is also human connection, the chemistry of creative endeavour and exchange through entertaining, networking and prospecting. As well as offering a break from routine, business travel also gives aspirants status credits, luxury and bonus Frequent Flyer points – all reasons that will ensure staff will push their employers to keep sending them on trips as soon as the government allows.
"For many, travelling for business is a perk of the job or, indeed, part of a salary package. Yet it is also human connection, the chemistry of creative endeavour and exchange through entertaining, networking and prospecting."
It’s hard to imagine now as Melbourne bunkers down in one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world, but elsewhere travel is already opening up. The future is unfolding before our eyes. Countries in the EU are starting to reopen their internal borders and are talking about allowing travel from outside the block, imminently.
Airports will become pandemic responsive. Singapore and China have already started to permit essential travel by using contact-tracing apps, while airlines, hotels, conference centres and trade fairs, as well as ancillary industries are preparing for the new world.
Safety measures and protocols, big and small, will help us be and, perhaps more importantly, feel safer when we’re travelling. Yet through the projection bias lens, it is almost impossible to imagine how business will curate a new post-pandemic business travel paradigm.
Consumer behaviour may shift in the short-term, but not in a lasting way. Business meetings may be able to happen on Zoom, but our future selves will crave human connection and travel.
There’s a massive deficit in the incidental and accidental relationships that are formed at industry conference dinners, trade fairs, in flight lounges and even in the hotel lobby bar.