How Covid and Zoom could spell the end for business travel

Emma Beaumont
·4-min read
Can business travel recover? - Getty
Can business travel recover? - Getty

Business travel has been dealt another blow as tough new border restrictions come into force. Elsewhere, vital business link Eurostar is on the brink and airlines continue to slash premium cabin seats. But what do these ongoing troubles mean for the future of the industry?

Over the weekend, executives and entrepreneurs were quietly struck off the UK quarantine exemptions list, meaning they will now have to isolate for up to 10 days upon arrival, essentially ending the limited business travel that had been occurring.

The sharp policy change comes only a month after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps launched a special fast-track route for business executives, saying it could generate millions of pounds of new investment and jobs for the UK.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Eurostar is on track for financial collapse following a 95 per cent drop in passengers since the onset of the pandemic. Industry sources said that forecasts indicate it could run out of money as early as April, although company insiders insisted its reserves could be stretched until the summer.

A spokesperson for the company said: “Without additional funding from the Government, there is a real risk to the survival of Eurostar as the current situation is very serious.”

The prospect of losing the vital link to the continent in a post-Brexit landscape has led to British business leaders writing to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak asking for “swift action to safeguard its future.”

Eurostar could collapse without Government support
Eurostar could collapse without Government support

These recent developments are a crushing blow to those who hoped corporate travel would recover in the coming months. Compounding the bleakness, airlines continue to cut previously lucrative business class seats. Back in summer, British Airways permanently grounded its business-class-only service from London City Airport to New York. Moreover, in a difficult economic climate, businesses might think twice about booking costly last-minute premium tickets for staff.

A failure to recover would have a devastating impact. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, business trips represented 21 per cent of the 6.7 trillion pounds spent on global travel in 2019.

What is the future of business travel?

While the short-term outlook is undoubtedly bleak, some in the industry remain optimistic. On a recent fourth-quarter results call, Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian said: “All indications are that corporate travel is ready to start coming back; it’ll come back pretty aggressively beginning in the second half of this year.”

Suggesting the company had made the right adjustments to recover, he added: “We’re a smaller airline. We’ve got 200 fewer planes today. We’ve already right-sized the business to be smaller, which will help protect the premium revenue sources and the margins of the business.”

In recent years, Delta has been one of the leading players in the key London to New York business route.

Conversely, Nicky Kelvin, head of content for the aviation website, The Points Guy, doesn’t expect the industry to regain solid footing until next year.

“You can’t have a business trip unless there is somebody to visit. That means the majority of folks need to be back in their offices or willing to meet up for dinner and drinks. Large-scale conferences will even lag that. People might be back in offices in large numbers by late spring or early summer, but given summer holidays many business trips will probably be on hold until September.”

“That means 2022 is the year when airlines and hotels can really return to making a profit. It’s the last-minute business airfares and the big conventions, with their lofty catering budgets, that really matter to the bottom line.”

However, they don’t subscribe to the idea that our increased comfort with technology will spell the end of business travel.

“People will say that video conferencing was so successful for the past year that trips won’t be as frequent. Maybe. But that said, there’s no replacement for in-person meetings. Zoom fatigue is real. The next two years will all be about reconnecting.”

There’s an argument that as businesses become more comfortable with flexible, remote working, it could even encourage more corporate travel, or at least lengthier trips. A quick jaunt to Frankfurt or Brussels could become a two-week stay. Traditional business hotel brands such as Crowne Plaza have already started tuning into this trend, converting lobbies into co-working spaces, though it remains to be seen if and when they will be back bustling with business travellers.