The tourist industry rebounded in a big way this summer as people tired of staying close to home throughout the pandemic seized the opportunity to travel.
But business travel has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. A recent report from the Global Business Travel Association notes that while business travel spending rose 5.5% year-over-year to $697 billion in 2021, that figure still pales in comparison to the $1.4 trillion spent on business travel in 2019.
A new report suggests the decline in briefcase-toting passengers may well be permanent. Among people who traveled for work at least three times a year before the pandemic, a striking two in five Americans say they never expect to travel for business again, according to a new report by decision intelligence company Morning Consult. The report surveyed more than 16,000 people across the Americas, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region between October 2021 and summer 2022.
The decline of business travel appears even more pronounced in Europe, with 55% of respondents in the UK and 59% in France saying they won’t be traveling for work ever again.
By contrast, people in India, China, and Brazil are more likely to see business travel in their future. But overall, according to the report, “it’s undeniable now that business travel will never return to a pre-pandemic normal.”
How the pandemic changed business travel
The Morning Consult report doesn’t dive into the reasons for the decline of business travel. But there are a number of good theories about why people are taking fewer business trips—and a few important caveats.
One big reason business travel has lagged behind leisure travel in the wake of the pandemic is that people have adjusted to videoconferencing and hybrid work. Now that we know how much work can get done over Zoom, the benefits of in-person interaction may not always be worth the tradeoffs of flights to see customers and coworkers. “I think about my lost productivity and personal time, my boss’s money and the pollution spewing from my plane,” Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times last year, reflecting on how many of his pre-pandemic business trips now appear unnecessary.
Corporate belt-tightening is also making business trips less prevalent, particularly in the face of high inflation and (possibly overblown) concerns about a recession. Moreover, environmental concerns are making companies less cavalier about the carbon footprint of business travel, according to a recent report from the Global Business Travel Association. And international business travel has been complicated by China’s covid-19 lockdowns and quarantine policies that vary by country.
But companies aren’t shunning business travel entirely. They’re simply being more selective about when, and why, they send workers afield.
A recent New York Times report found that while individual business trips have taken a hit in the wake of the pandemic, companies are still happy to spend on travel to conferences and conventions. Meanwhile, consulting firm AlixPartners says that companies are cutting back on flying workers out for internal meetings and prioritizing face-time with clients instead. Still, AlixPartners predicts that business travel will stay 15-25% below pre-pandemic levels through at least 2025.