4 Things to Watch for in 2021 Business Travel

May 27, 2021 | Business, Heart+Mind Pulse, RoundTable, Travel

The Return of Business Travel 

With more than half of American adults fully vaccinated, the return of business travel is shifting from a far-off hypothetical to a fast-crystalizing reality. According to our recent Heart+Mind Pulse survey (May 2021), 70% of people who have historically traveled for business plan to take a business trip by car within the next 6 months. Meanwhile, 60% say they plan to take business trips by plane or train within the same period. 

Even as the business travel resumes, however, questions remain regarding frequency, safety, and necessity. In our May RoundTable session, we invited industry experts to weigh in on how companies, conferences and trade shows will address safety concerns and create opportunities for in-person networking and connection in a post-COVID world. Below is our summary. 

Unequal Readiness

business travel

Nationally, data from the Heart+Mind Pulse indicate that 85% of former business travelers are currently willing to travel for work, and 81% of our RoundTable audience expressed the same view. In both cases, however, a majority maintain some reservations about business travel, and would only travel if it’s necessary.

The Pulse data also identify gender and generational disparities in travel readiness. Women are more hesitant (22%) than men (12%). Gen Xers (20%) and Boomers (12%) are more hesitant than young people. In contrast, 52% of Millennials are “totally ready” to travel, and 63% of Gen Z respondents say they would travel if they needed to. 

Reality Check

Will Wise, Group VP at Reed Exhibitions, a leading trade show and convention organizer, offered four insights into what to expect over the next year from conferences and trade shows. 

1. Timelines are industry specific.

Wise noted that Las Vegas is reopening its doors to large-scale business conventions with the World of Concrete, which will run from June 7 to June 10. Wise said to expect restaurant and bar industry shows to follow shortly after. Industries like these – construction and food – are populated by essential workers “used to being out front” during the pandemic. 

On the other hand, Wise said to anticipate that other industries’ conferences, like e-commerce and public sector, will wait until the end of the year before resuming in-person events.

“We have a transportation event in December, and that’s going to go well, but it would not go well at all in August,” Wise said.

2. Timelines are location specific.

Timelines don’t only vary by industry, but also by geography due to differing legal restrictions between states and countries. Wise noted that Florida, where Reed organized its Jewelers International Showcase in March, was the first convention hotspot to reopen its doors. Las Vegas is poised to open next, with several substantial trade shows slated for the next few months. New York City is trailing but making headway.

“New York City has famously gone through a really tough last year, but they’ve also done great work modernizing the Javits Center,” Wise said, noting that the facility had been outfitted as a vaccination center during the pandemic. “And it is going to open [to events] starting in August.” 

RELATED: The Future of In-Person Business Events

3. Timelines are dependent on continued vaccination progress.

Wise said the prognosis has improved from February, when it seemed that any kind of in-person conferences would have to wait until late fall or the end of the year. This improved projection has been driven by vaccinations and a resulting decline in COVID-19 cases and fatalities. 

In addition, rising vaccination rates will enable many states to loosen restrictions on building occupancy capacities and social distancing. According to the New York Times, “In many states that have yet to fully reopen, governors have set targets for doing so based on vaccination rates or other health measures.”

Data from our recent Heart+Mind Pulse survey indicate that, while half of unvaccinated Americans either have an appointment to get a vaccine or plan to schedule an appointment, another half – almost a quarter of all respondents – do not intend to ever get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

4. Stop comparing 2021 to 2019.

“We’re establishing a lot of new ways of doing things,” Wise said, noting that the return of trade shows and conventions this summer and fall will not be a picture-perfect recreation of pre-pandemic America. Instead, he said to expect more small- and medium-sized businesses stepping up to attend expos.

“The large Fortune 1000 exhibitors – they are going to be slower,” he said. Larger firms tend to have stricter traveling regulations, are “less freewheeling,” and require larger booths at fairs. “There’s a bit of a renaissance of small and medium businesses stepping in to go to the expos coming up. They’re more agile, and they’re probably even more urgent to get back to business and get lead generation going again.”  

Returning trade shows will also differ from the old normal by offering hybrid options, most of our RoundTable experts said. However, Wise said our new familiarity with virtual alternatives won’t function as a replacement for in-person events.

“The larger-scale virtual events that have had success are more in industries with heavy training needs, education, true thought leadership – ones that are just more transactional,” he said. “It’s not as successful. It’s really hard to create that trade show floor [experience] virtually; I personally don’t think it’s realistic.” 

Practical Travel Resources

Even as business travel continues to recover from its pandemic low, interstate and international travelers still face obstacles including legal restrictions and health concerns. Here are some of the best digital resources to help you navigate the quickly fluctuating legal and health landscapes around travel:

  • United Airlines’ interactive travel map charts travel requirements to every US state, including quarantine guidelines, COVID-19 testing needs, and online forms.
  • UA also maintains an international version of the interactive map, which records the same set of legal restrictions on travel to international destinations.
  • The New York Times’ reopening plans map charts the reopening status of each US state, including masking and social distancing requirements and industry openness. 
  • The Department of States’ travel advisory map offers four levels of travel recommendations to international destinations based on safety, ranging from exercise normal precautions to do not travel. The advisory offers suggestions based on COVID-19 safety concerns, but also cites risks associated with terrorism and crime.
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