How to navigate business travel amidst the global pandemic
It can be good for our business and ourselves to take flight again, but what are the safest and most effective ways to travel?
There is no doubt that COVID-19 has reshaped the way people are travelling for business. While in 2017, spending on business travel totalled $1.3 trillion globally and was expected to grow to $1.7 trillion by 2022, thanks to the global pandemic, much of that has halted1. According to the Bupa Global Executive Wellbeing Index, which looked at the mental health toll of the pandemic on high net worth individuals and senior executives based across Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia, executives still plan to travel less in the coming year, even if restrictions are lifted.2.
It is something Francesco Deluca, Regional Director EMEA at the business travel management services Omega World Travel has found. ‘Absolutely, I’ve cut back on travel,’ he agrees. ‘Travelling for work and meeting clients was a huge part of my weekly routine, and then overnight, we found ourselves literally grounded.’
For some, the reduction in travel has been a welcome respite; less travel has
meant less exhausting time on the road or air and more time with friends and family. According to Bupa Global research, nearly half of executives feel their mental health has benefited from not travelling so much during the pandemic3 . ‘Without the travel demands, every morning and night can be spent at home with our families,’ says Mason Donovan, Managing Partner of The Dagoba Group, which can mean more time to ‘invest more in ourselves, spend time with family and develop a healthy life routine.’
But nearly 10% of respondents strongly disagreed that less work travel had boosted their mental health, while many others have found the lack of face to face meetings actively unhelpful to business relationships4.
‘It was hard to accept that I was going nowhere because it affected my work and the commercial relationships that I built up,’ Deluca says. ‘I think you can be as fluent in Zoom as possible, but it can’t compete with the empathy and relationship building that you can achieve in person.’
There are plenty of documented benefits of meeting business contacts in person. A 2013 study by Oxford Economics found that the rate of converting prospects to customers nearly doubles when a face-to-face meeting is added. It calculated that ‘the average business in the U.S. would forfeit 17% of its profits in the first year of eliminating business travel. It would take more than three years for profits to recover5.'
It’s not just financial: many C-suite members think that in-person collaboration is critical.
‘It has been a trade-off, for sure,’ agrees Donovan. ‘[Many of us in the company] do miss the social aspect and the dynamism that shows up with in-person development.’
Weighing up the risks
Amid changing restrictions, businesses are returning cautiously to travel. In the summer, 70% of members of the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) reported a willingness to permit employees to return to travelling6. Meanwhile groups of countries such as Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia set up their own reciprocal ‘green lanes’ for travel to resume between themselves and promote economic activity7. It comes down to a matter of weighing up the risk factors – something business executives are used to doing every day.
Deluca says that his own travel has picked up gradually. ‘I’ve started slowly, and mainly domestically in the UK,’ he says, ‘but I really enjoy travelling again.’
‘Undoubtedly restoring the normality of person to person social interaction is crucial for our mental health especially during such a prolonged period of abnormality in society. However it will be different for everyone and each person will have to make their own assessment of the individual risk in returning to travelling to see clients and contacts,’ Dr Luke James, Medical Director Bupa Global & UK Insurance, says. ‘If people are feeling particularly nervous about travelling or feel they are in a higher risk group then they need to make that sensible decision and avoid travel and face to face meetings.’
Travelling brings an element of risk – but it can be mitigated by the choices one makes. Air travel, for example, is ‘relatively safe’, according to David Nabarro, WHO special envoy for COVID-19, because of the good ventilation system onboard aeroplanes. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) highlights the importance of modern air filters on planes, which ‘have a similar performance to those used to keep the air clean in hospital operating rooms and industrial clean rooms.’ It also notes the importance of the planes themselves being regularly disinfected8.
Airports around the world have installed extra protective screens around check-in, boarding and at gates, while airlines are encouraging remote check-in and bag drops to reduce human contact, and temperature testing is routinely carried out.
Businesses are stepping up safety measures for their employees, too. One-third (31%) of Global Business Travel Association member companies plan to provide PPE for their travellers, while 20% require their travellers to provide their own as an essential item for their safe return to travel9. Dr James adds that it is crucial to ‘follow all current advice on face masks, social distancing and hand washing.’
One sector of travel seeing huge increases is the private jet market.‘When restrictions in Europe began to ease in early summer, we saw a dramatic surge in private jet enquiries and bookings as people regained their appetite for travel and, crucially, wanted to travel in the safest way possible,’ Kevin Macnaughton, Managing Director for Charter at Air Partner, says.
He added that after the summer holidays, the business saw bookings from companies and executives alike. ‘Beyond the clear benefits from travelling on an aircraft that is not open to others, private travel enables businesses to opt for tailored health and safety measures such as pre-flight COVID-19 testing.’
He added that bespoke travel plans could also react to changing schedules. ‘What we are seeing most recently is that flexibility is crucial with travel restrictions constantly changing.’
The benefit from the uncertainty could be that business executives are now able to choose just how much travel they want to do. Whilst some are content with virtual meetings, others want more face to face – but perhaps are now pickier about the time they spend away from home.‘While undoubtedly the ability to function and interact with clients and colleagues remotely has been a great success during this COVID-19 period and should be something we make sure is embedded for the future, it’s all about moderation,’ Dr James says. He argues that ‘a blended approach of some remote and some face to face meetings is likely to be most successful [for our mental health] in the longer run’
Bupa Global Resources for customers
Bupa Global has resources to help you and your family cope. If you’re a Bupa Global customer and have a health concern the Global Virtual Care (GVC) service provides confidential access to a global network of doctors by telephone or video call, with virtual appointments available 24/7 in multiple languages - enabling you to speak to a doctor at a time that suits you. Please visit our COVID-19 information hub for more details on how you can access our GVC service.
Bupa Global customers also have access to our Healthline service, which gives access to general medical information on COVID-19 and other medical conditions (mental and physical) as well as providing advice from health professionals and referrals for a second medical opinion.
Alternatively, if you have access to Bupa Global through your employer – you and your family may be entitled to use the Employee Assistance Programme. The programme entitles eligible Bupa Global customers to access trained healthcare professionals 24 hours a day, 365 days a year via phone, email or online to talk through any work, life or personal concerns.