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Business travelers are still at home due to employee worries, the slow vaccine rollout and the patchwork of COVID-19 rules

Gartner research finds that only 11% of companies have resumed travel or plan to within the next six months.


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Even as more and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19 despite a slow rollout, most companies have business travel plans on hold at least for now. Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR research, said that executives are still very early in their planning process around starting normal business travel. Gartner research indicates that only 11% of companies have resumed travel or plan to return to historical levels within the next six months.  

“Most companies don’t have a specific plan for when they will resume business travel–61% of companies say they just don’t know,” Kropp said. 

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Kropp expects the total volume of business travel to be dramatically lower when travel restrictions are lifted. 

“Many companies have been able to maintain productivity without travel and CFOs have enjoyed the cost savings from that,” he said. “Even once an effective vaccination program is fully in place, total travel volume will be substantially lower than it was in 2019.”

Amanda Sonneborn, a partner in King & Spalding’s corporate, finance and investments practice, said that it remains unclear when regulation and public sentiment will widely support traveling. 

“Employers should continue to consider conducting meetings remotely and ways in which they will accommodate employees who cannot travel due to a disability or who are not comfortable traveling, even though they may not have a disability basis for not doing so,” Sonneborn said.

Heidi Siegmund, an employment attorney at McGuireWoods, advises that along with accommodating employees’ individual medical conditions, it’s best practice to address travel on a case by case basis at the moment. Siegmund also said many employers are still making business travel optional for the time being. 

Updating corporate travel policies

At the end of 2020, Skift and TripActions surveyed business travelers and travel managers to understand the state of business travel and released their findings in the report, The State of Corporate Travel & Expense 2021: The Path to Recovery.

The survey asked business travelers what policies and procedures would make them feel comfortable about traveling for work. Here is what the survey found:

  • New cleanliness and safety procedures from travel suppliers          38%
  • New government policies for safe business travel                            25%
  • More flexible booking rules to change or cancel plans                     19%
  • New company policies on health, safety and wellness                     10%

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Davis Walsh, a lawyer at McGuireWoods, said that health and safety regulations about  travel vary from state to state and city to city. Also, local requirements for testing and quarantining change frequently as COVID-19 case numbers fluctuate.  

“For the time being, employers will need to consider the health and safety requirements for not only an employee’s home base but also the places where they will be traveling,”  he said.

Walsh and co-author Samuel L. Tarry wrote “Infectious Disease Litigation: Science, Law & Procedure,” a new book published by the American Bar Association. Walsh said that employers also should consider that employees have different risk profiles when it comes to contracting COVID-19, even after they have received a vaccine.  

“Travel may heighten or change some employees’ risks and it is important to accommodate those individual medical conditions and risks,” he said.

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Sonneborn of King & Spalding said that employers also should consider the more general guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, which are still discouraging travel generally. 

“To the extent an employer is not following CDC guidance, the employer may be required to explain its rationale to its employees and the public,” she said. 

Another factor in the business travel equation is employee relations. Many tech companies are not requiring employees to return to the office any time soon, and Sonneborn predicts that traveling will likely take even longer to gain wide acceptance.

“Those companies that do require travel should prepare for potential employee push back and anxiety,” she said. “This potential disruption in the workplace needs to be carefully considered and weighed against the advantage of any required travel.”

Business travel forecast for 2021

The Global Business Travel Association predicts some increase in activity this year. A new report from the association finds that the recovery in 2021 will be gradual due to slow vaccination efforts, restrictive travel policies, and lagging business confidence. A February poll about attitudes around travel and the coronavirus. The poll found that 79% of GBTA members would be comfortable with business travel once they have received a COVID-19 vaccine. Forty-nine percent of respondents indicated that it is a “good policy” to mandate testing before an employee can travel for work.

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The corporate travel report from Skift and TripActions suggests that three factors will have the biggest influence on travel decisions: Proximity, travel reason and the business sector. 

An analysis by McKinsey predicts that the manufacturing, pharmaceutical and construction industries will see the quickest return to travel. Tech, finance and energy will come next with healthcare, education and professional services being the last sectors to start traveling again. Also, companies will approve regional travel by car first, then domestic travel by air or train, and finally international air travel, according to the McKinsey analysis. 

The report also notes an increase in travel insurance to take into account the need to cancel or change travel plans due to changing conditions due to the pandemic.

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