A Business World Without Business Travel: Happier, Healthier, but Still Uncertain About the Future

How has the pandemic impacted the sales industry and business sales trips? With flights off the table, sales professionals need to understand customer behaviours to thrive in a remote sales environment.

Laura Machan, Partner, Recruitment, LHH Knightsbridge
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Marco is a national sales manager who sells complex mechanical parts to customers all over the world. I was pretty confident that, as soon as pandemic conditions allowed, he would start flying again.

Boy, was I wrong.

On a recent call, Marco told me bluntly that COVID-19 actually saved his life. Before the pandemic, Marco (not his real name of course) was in his car or on a plane four out of every five days. There was lots of schmoozing over dinner and drinks, and lots of junk food being consumed on-the-fly. It was a destructive and unsustainable lifestyle.

Then the pandemic hit and like so many people in sales, Marco had to adjust his whole approach to the job. His sales meetings were moved to Zoom and he set up his home office with a big-screen television for group video calls. He often had so many different windows open on the big screen that his wife wondered aloud if he was moonlighting as an air traffic controller. 

And you know what? It didn’t take long for Marco to learn that he could sell in a virtual world.

Marco said he found that his team was stable and his numbers were great. On the personal side, he lost 45 pounds and was able to stop taking medication for high blood pressure. He also discovered that his wife was actually an excellent cook.

So, I asked Marco whether he was looking forward to the end of pandemic restrictions and the resumption of business travel. He laughed and said that the first time his bosses scrambled him to Korea for a single meeting, he would use the time on the mind-numbingly long trans-Pacific flight to work on his resumé.

Many of us miss business travel and a significant amount of it is expected to return as pandemic conditions ease as COVID-19 vaccinations gain momentum. However, it’s looking increasingly likely that business travel may never again reach pre-pandemic levels.

Some, like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, have publicly predicted that 50 percent of business travel, and nearly a third of days spent working in an office setting, will simply “go away” now that companies have adjusted to life with video conferencing and other virtual business tools.  Others, like Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, have said it will take a decade or more to get back to 2019 levels.

Still, there are a lot of people who are looking forward to returning to the business class lounge.

Even though too much travel can take a toll on our personal health, a growing constituency of companies and employees believe once global vaccination efforts have reached critical mass later this year, business travel will surge once again.

The travel industry is certainly working diligently to market the idea of a comeback in business travel. A new poll commissioned by the Global Business Travel Association found that 79 percent of its members were comfortable or very comfortable travelling for business after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

All of this makes you wonder – what is it exactly that we love so much about business travel? 

In the pre-pandemic days, business travel was seen by many in the business world as a sign of status. The more you travelled, and the more you travelled in business class, the higher up the corporate hierarchy you tended to be. And an investment in sending you somewhere for an important meeting was often viewed as a sign your employer had confidence in you.

However, many of us realized that the idea of business travel often stood in stark contrast to reality. For every pampering experience at a hotel or an executive airport lounge, we also had to endure the cancelled flights and the stress of being away from friends and family.  

LHH Knightsbridge recently conducted a LinkedIn poll that identified some of the things we most like about business travel. Of significance, 40 percent of respondents identified a change of scenery and 37 percent identified networking opportunities as the major reasons why they like to make the effort to go out and meet with their clients face to face.

However, it was interesting to note that only 19 percent of respondents cited “productive meetings” as a key element of business travel. That certainly seems to suggest that the business world learned during the pandemic how to hold productive virtual meetings.

Now that we’ve established, as my friend Marco did, that you can still be an effective salesperson over Zoom, it may dampen some enthusiasm for a return to business travel. 

We probably won’t know exactly how interested companies are in having their people travel, and what kind of tolerance employees have for hitting the road, until the global vaccine rollout is more complete.

Are you planning to travel more once pandemic conditions make it safe to hop on an airplane again? Will you travel less than you did before, making sure that each trip is absolutely necessary?

As we answer questions like that, we’ll start to reveal more about the future of work-related travel and, consequently, the future of work.

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