Business travel: what will happen after Corona?

Before a new fragrance goes into production, it goes through numerous development stages. In every single one, the mixture is sniffed intensely by many noses. It is difficult to imagine that the developers work together in a purely virtual manner – and yet the perfumers of the German Symrise group not only get by without physical meetings, they don’t even have to send each other scent samples. “With computer and robot technology, recipes can be produced in Singapore or São Paulo in exactly the same way as in Holzminden,” says Bernhard Kott, who is responsible for global sustainability management at Symrise. This way of working, which makes many internal trips unnecessary, was introduced years ago. Nonetheless, before the pandemic began, the employees had traveled a great deal back and forth between the around one hundred Symrise locations around the world, says Kott: “These trips were almost completely replaced by video conferences. Because this is now working well, we don’t want to go back to the old processes and working methods, but also reduce internal travel to a minimum in the future. “

Compared to 2019, the company wants to permanently reduce the number of business trips by half. This not only saves costs and reduces CO₂ emissions, but also meets the wishes of the employees, says Bernhard Kott: “The employees see it as an advantage that they spend significantly less time on the road, on the train and on the plane than they do previously.”

Companies are more reluctant to travel for business than they were a year ago

Up until the Corona crisis, the number of business trips by German companies and organizations rose continuously. In 2019 they sent around 13 million employees on trips and spent a good 55 billion euros on it. In 2020, four fifths of sales were abruptly lost due to business travel. This emerges from the 2021 business travel analysis by the Association of German Travel Management (VDR), which brings together the major airlines, hotel chains, car rental companies, Deutsche Bahn and other service providers. Because most travelers are on the move in Germany, hotels and transport companies in Germany were particularly hard hit.

With the relaxation of the Corona situation in spring, the booking numbers slowly increased again, says VDR Vice President Inge Pirner: “After the vacation time, the numbers skyrocketed! You could see how much the longing for personal meetings was pent up would have.” However, the fourth wave quickly ended this trend: “At the moment, companies are even more reluctant to take business trips than they were a year ago.”

So far, the recent slump has apparently mainly affected domestic travel. The “positive trend” of the third quarter of flight bookings is still continuing, says Stefan Kreuzpaintner, Head of Sales at the Lufthansa Group: “Even in the last few days, after we have seen more restrictive measures again, the demand for business travel for the first time during the pandemic has barely increased return.” This is also due to the fact that Germans are allowed to travel to the USA and many Asian countries again after a long time. Small and medium-sized companies in particular are currently booking more flights again, explains Kreuzpaintner: “They have more travel needs to meet customers or suppliers in person, while large companies often have branches or local staff.”

In view of the current worsening of the corona situation in Germany, new, tough restrictions on travel cannot be ruled out. According to the judgment of the Federal Constitutional Court last Tuesday, the exit and contact restrictions in the spring were constitutional. Although business travel was generally allowed in lockdown, it was fraught with major difficulties such as quarantine regulations and restricted flight schedules. “If there are new restrictions on travel, the German economy will be damaged,” warns Inge Pirner from VDR.

The business travel association expects a permanent decrease of 30 percent

In principle, business trips remained essential for many companies – also because the limits of video conferencing had become obvious, says Stefan Kreuzpaintner. But even at Lufthansa one does not expect that after the end of the pandemic everything will be the same as before. The company assumes that 90 percent of the bookings of 2019 will be achieved again in the medium term. The VDR, on the other hand, expects a much stronger permanent decline of 30 percent. Of the German companies and organizations that the association surveyed for its current analysis, 87 percent want to reduce the number of business trips.

Now that the companies and their employees have gained a lot of experience with video conferencing, it is becoming clear which types of travel can and will not be avoided in the future. “It has been shown that without travel it becomes much more difficult for companies to acquire new customers,” says Inge Pirner. Personal contact remains very important even with existing customers. This applies particularly to product development, explains Bernhard Kott from Symrise: “What is difficult to replace with virtual formats are meetings in the customer’s laboratories. Nothing beats the direct exchange of experiences here.”

In creative processes, presence often makes all the difference

Around 50,000 virtual meetings are held every day at the consulting firm McKinsey. For years, all employees have had standard tools for video conferences and webinars on their computers, says a company spokeswoman: “The pandemic has once again shown that virtual collaboration works well in many situations.” However, it cannot completely replace direct contact, because presence often makes a decisive difference, especially in creative processes, when new paths are broken, in conflict situations or in very personal conversations.

In order to establish and maintain contacts with customers and suppliers, to get to know colleagues at other locations better, to develop new ideas and products or to resolve conflicts, people will continue to travel. However, these purposes can also be achieved with a few, well-planned trips. “The added value of a business trip will be examined more closely in the future,” says Inge Pirner. Now the VDR member companies are preparing themselves for a second difficult winter: “We do not expect that we will travel again until next spring.”

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