Guess Who’s Traveling for Work

A couple weeks ago, the firm’s managing partner invited a dozen clients to a recreational shooting event to take out some pandemic frustrations on clay targets. To his surprise, everyone came—in many cases flying a few hours to get there. What followed was a day of activity and some socially distanced networking. “Every one of those clients was commenting on how great it was to see one another again,” recalls the partner.

The coronavirus poses risks to anyone who comes into contact with other people, of course, especially if people aren’t following strict guidelines on mask wearing or social distancing. It’s one of the reasons why both business and leisure travel almost completely stopped at the beginning of the lockdowns. But in a recent surprise twist, at least some professionals from different fields are slowly incorporating travel back into their routines. And airline numbers seem to back this: While eight in 10 US firms have canceled most business travel, a new survey from the Global Business Travel Association says that’s still better than in the spring: worldwide, 85% of firms have canceled most or all business travel, down from 97% at the end of April.

No firm appears to be requiring any business travel, but experts say many executives are anxious to get out—part of the so-called pandemic fatigue that many are experiencing. What’s more, despite all the talk of the Zoom era eliminating the need for business travel, many executives still think face-to-face communication provides a competitive advantage over doing everything virtually. “Having a nice meal together, no can tell me otherwise, it works,” says Scott Macfarlane, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global account lead in the firm’s Financial Services practice.

The travel visits are different than pre-pandemic meetings, or at least are held in different locations. Out for now are office visits, either because the office hasn’t yet opened or employers don’t want to bring in non-employees who they haven’t tested or informed of workplace safety procedures. Some business visits are being done at shared meeting spaces, where the owner of the space is responsible for cleaning and sanitizing. But for the most part, business is being done at outdoor cafes, bars, restaurants, and golf courses.

Experts say the key to doing business travel now is to first suss out the comfort level of the person you want to visit. He or she may not be ready to have in-person business contacts yet. Tell the other person what your comfort level is, Macfarlane says, and don’t force the business contact to do anything. “It has to be done respectfully, and it has to be optional,” he says.

To date, it’s hard to know which business sectors are spurring these trips more. Film production, for example, appears to be one: it often requires dozens of people to travel to a location to work for weeks. Currently, that industry has many protocols for those who do travel, including guidelines laid out by unions, directors, and production crews. That increases costs, but at least filming goes on, says William Simon, Korn Ferry’s global sector leader for media and entertainment. “When I used to see production trucks, I got annoyed because they often were blocking a parking spot. Now I see them and smile,” Simon says.

Beyond protocols, of course, many countries either aren’t letting people enter from the United States at all or quarantining visitors for several days. Even within the US, some states are asking visitors to quarantine themselves for at least 14 days before seeing anyone. New York alone has 40 states on its quarantine list. That’s on top of any restrictions companies may impose on its workers. One firm that was allowing business travel was barring traveling workers from any of its worksites for 14 days. 

Still, down the road, many companies expect travel to rebound in the first half of 2021. More than half of survey respondents told the Global Business Travel Association that an effective vaccine would have the most influence on travel planning. 

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