A Conflicted Return to Business Travel

Before COVID, many of us made frequent business trips to meet with clients, partners, and colleagues. Love it or hate it, we didn’t have a lot of choice about it. Business travel was a required part of our jobs.

That changed abruptly in 2020 when many countries went into pandemic lockdown, most companies halted travel, and nearly all in-person events went virtual. Suddenly it was possible to close sales, present at conferences, and connect with mentors online. And if I’m being totally honest, for some of us, that was a bit of a relief.

I understand the imagined appeal of business travel: Visiting far-off lands at a company’s expense. Staying in plush hotels. Eating out at fancy restaurants. Not having to cook meals or do dishes.

However, in my experience, business trips are typically complicated and exhausting. First, there’s the challenge of planning for a trip that takes you away from home and routine. For a family like mine – with two working parents and kids going off in different directions – it also means ensuring that proposed travel dates don’t conflict with key work or personal commitments (like band concerts, musical productions, or sport playoffs).

Then, there’s the complexity of arranging transportation, visas, accommodations, and visit logistics. As the travel dates approach, it means preparing for time away – grocery shopping, meal prep, lunch money, childcare. It means reminding the family of the various activities and responsibilities that I often handle: morning wake-up and breakfast, signing permission slips, getting to after-school activities, feeding and walking the dog.

To minimize my time away from home, I tend to leave at the crack of dawn, fly overnight, and cram as much as possible into a few days. Inevitably there are travel mishaps that throw a wrench in plans – canceled flights, missed connections, traffic delays, or car breakdowns. And there’s the recurring humiliation of getting through airport security: removing shoes, belts, and jackets; depositing three-ounce containers of deodorant, face cream, and makeup on the conveyor belt for all to see; walking barefoot through the millimeter-wave scanner and receiving pat-downs from TSA agents.

On the airplane and at the hotel, I catch up on emails and other work that doesn’t stop while I’m away. I call home to check on the family, answering questions and issuing reminders, at once recognizing that they are self-sufficient and capable – but that my travel nevertheless disrupts our family’s routine. I think your glasses are near the phone. Did you finish your homework? Remember to practice your instrument. I think we’re out of the yogurt you like. How was your math test? Yes, I ordered a band t-shirt. “Try to get some sleep tonight,” my husband urges, as he knows I don’t sleep well in hotels – missing the familiarity of home and concerned about waking on time in an unusual place and different time zone.

I learned never to return from a business trip empty handed. When my kids were younger, I had a regimen: a souvenir spoon for my daughter, a mini snow globe for my older son, and a stuffed animal for my youngest. They’ve each ended up with quite a collection.

I have fond memories of business trips to Poland, Brazil, Ireland, China, Switzerland, Israel, Germany, and more. I appreciate that I had the chance to visit places I may not have otherwise seen, experience different cultures, and meet fascinating people. In retrospect, I probably should have taken further advantage of my time away – like tacking on an extra day to go sightseeing or at least building in a little flex in my schedule. But, with kids at home, my priority has always been getting back home to them.

I’m not alone in struggling being away from my family when I travel for work; that’s the most common issue cited by both men and women. Historically, business travelers were predominantly men, though the percentage of women has been increasing. One unique concern women had was over personal safety while traveling alone for business.

When the COVID-19 lockdown halted business travel, it was a bit of a relief. While we faced a new set of challenges – physical and mental health, virtual school and work, toilet paper shortages – the absence of time away from home made some things easier. I spent hours behind closed doors on video conferences…but I was home for dinner, available to help with homework, and slept in my own bed. Client and team meetings that would have previously required me to get on a plane were now done successfully virtually. Conference talks were recorded as videos and broadcast.

After steady increases in global business travel, spending peaked in 2019 at $1.4 trillion, then dropped by more than half in 2020. Hotels and air transportation costs account for nearly half of all business travel expenses. Business travelers make up 40% of all hotel guests. And while business travelers make up only 12% of airline passengers, they represent 75% of the airline profits. The reduction in business travel also led to significantly reduced carbon emissions.

Business travel is gradually coming back. Global spending exceeded $900 billion in 2022 and is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2026 (though about 22% of businesses say they have made permanent shifts to virtual meetings to save costs and lower carbon footprint).

Many of us have mixed feelings about the return to business travel. Sure, we’ve missed face-to-face engagements and the camaraderie that comes with that. But there’s also a lot we don’t miss: wasted time, cost and complexity, guilt-ridden time away from family, lonely overseas trips, and massive environmental impacts.

There are certainly times when in-person interactions are hugely valuable to build relationships, inspire teams, or close deals. There are other circumstances where virtual sessions are most appropriate, expeditious, and responsible. I’m hopeful that the reset we’ve been through will force a more nuanced decision process about costs versus benefits of business travel.

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