I’ve now traveled for work twice in the COVID-19 era and I didn’t catch this nasty bug. Does that mean business travel is safe again? Yeah, not completely, but it’s safer than you might think. Here’s what I’ve seen and why I think companies should consider (safely) getting their staff back on the road again.
Business travel, as a whole, is radically smaller thanks to the coronavirus. In what seemed like overnight, companies stopped nearly all travel. The same goes for leisure travel too. And it hasn’t recovered yet.
Although daily travelers nearly reached 1m travelers the Friday before Labor Day, travel is still down nearly 60% off the prior year days. For both July and August total travelers hovered around the ~20m mark, but this number is down from the mid to high 70m’s last year (see chart, below).
After an April low of around 87k passengers on the worst travel day of the crisis, the travel industry has steadily increased its throughput. The chart below shows this climb with daily air traffic appearing to have settled into a new normal hovering between ~500k and north of 800k (the 962k travelers on 9/4 related to Labor Day traffic notwithstanding). However, these numbers are still well off their “normal” levels which would have exceeded 2m passengers on any given day.
Business travel has NOT returned yet and many question whether it will ever will (although I think that’s silliness). And for the travel industry to fully recover some sort of meaningful level of business travel will need to return along with the lumpier-but-still-reliable vacation traffic that ebbs and flows throughout the year (e.g. summer traffic, back to college, holiday travel, etc).
As someone who used to travel for work at least twice a month (and often more than that) the sudden and complete elimination of all business travel was extremely disorienting for me as I know it was for many other business travelers.
While we all settled into our new normal of Zoom calls and more Zoom calls, and a few more Zoom calls after that, it also didn’t take too long for folks like myself to get really antsy.
Wait, I can go? Like, for real?
After several months of being homebound, I ventured out for two business trips. My company has slowly started traveling again but approval “from the top” was required and it had to be a truly necessary trip. I’ve actually turned down a few recent requests from my staff that I didn’t deem essential, but these two trips were.
A few distressed customers threatening to leave and demanding senior leadership, in person. We could have covered the content remotely, but these customers demanded (literally) that a team of senior leaders make the visit, kiss the ring, and describe what we were going to do to fix their issues.
Secretly, I was more than a little excited to get back on the road – even under these conditions. I was also, admittedly, a little nervous. Would I get sick? Would I bring it back home with me to my family?
My wife was also a bit of a wreck about the whole thing. Well, that’s not fair to her. What I mean to say is she was genuinely concerned about me being a transmitter and infecting her or the kids. I told her I had to go…and I did.
And both times I didn’t get sick.
Upon returning from both trips and after waiting a few days, I was tested for COVID-19. Both tests were negative.
During each of these trips, I felt somewhere between very safe and relatively safe. At least while doing the actual traveling. It was with the customers where I felt the least safe. More on that in a moment.
Here’s what I observed
Here’s what I observed on my two business trips.
The airlines, for the most part, have their shit together. But it still varies a bit
I flew Southwest and United and I’d have to say that Southwest has its shit together a little more than United.
Southwest is holding middle seats free right now, which is not sustainable in the long run. It’s nice, however, to not have someone right up on you the whole trip. United is NOT doing this and for an eternity (in reality, it was like 10 minutes) I was seated next to a passenger on a smaller regional jet. It would have been a 3-hour flight. Fortunately, the flight was relatively empty and the FA let me move to another seat with no fellow seatmate.
Southwest only has one type of jet, and it’s a big one, which is kind of nice. It’s nice to know you won’t be squished into a smaller metal tube and it provides some extra room for passengers to spread out.
United gives you some wipes (not nearly enough, btw) to use to wipe down their area.
Masks were observed pretty religiously by everyone and we have no anti-mask incidents on out flights.
It’s impossible to socially distance on an airplane
Have you ever been on a plane? Social distancing is a nice idea, but it’s not a reality that can be achieved on a plane.
Even with the middle seat held open, you are pretty much always within well-less-than 6 feet of any fellow passenger. Never mind the boarding process when people walk down those narrow aisles. Or standing up to deplane (although United has this part dialed in a bit better, IMO).
Socially distancing on a plane is a farce. Which is probably why United has dispensed with holding middle seats. They are counting on other countermeasures like air filtration, masks, sani-wipes, and common sense from fellow passengers.
The hotels were, well, interesting
I am a Hilton guy, through and through. So, of course, I stayed at Hilton properties on my trips. Four different hotels over the course of the two trips. Two Hampton Inns and two Hilton Garden Inns. They were pretty full, considering. I noticed a lot of work trucks in at one – obviously railroad guys staying town.
Others were totally empty save a handful of cars in the parking lots. They all served coffee. Breakfast was bagged meals. Shield guards up at the front desks. Even still, it was not a no-touch experience. At one hotel I still had to fill out my rental car info. The other I had to sign the credit card machine. And, of course, they handed me keys.
The clerks were wearing masks, but some didn’t really know how to wear them (nose visible). There was hand sanitizer in ready supply in common areas.
The rooms were clean-ish – as clean as a tired Hampton Inn can be, right? I still wiped everything down though (more on this in a minute).
Even still, I felt relatively safe during my stays. Safe enough anyway. I’d have preferred a newer Airbnb to be honest.
Rental Cars were no biggie, but I still wiped mine down anyway
Allegedly rental car companies are cleaning their cars more thoroughly now. I rented from Avis and in both cases, my rental car had a placard indicating the car had been cleaned extensively. I don’t trust ’em though so I wiped the car down anyway myself.
It was busy-ish
People are starting to travel a bit more now. Perhaps it has to do with the great deals travel providers are offering. Or maybe it’s because people are tired of being cooped up in their homes for so long. Or, maybe they feel safer given what we know about the virus and the steps that travel providers have taken to keep travelers safe. At the Denver airport, in particular, it was pretty busy. Not so much at my home airport of Ontario where it was a ghost town.
Who is actually traveling right now?
It’s hard to say for sure, but anecdotally (and nothing more than that), on theses two recent business trips, it was clear there were NOT a lot of business travelers in the air. Sure, there were some, but after doing this “travel for work” thing for as long as I have it’s relatively easy to separate the pros from the amateurs. These observations shouldn’t reflect a total and complete view of travel right now, but they are worth noting, I think.
Lots of college kids. Lots of older people (which was unexpected). Lots of Trump supporters (true story). And, in general, a large percentage appeared to be heading out on vacation. Again, this is just observationally – and just from two trips that involved 6 airports.
From talking with other fellow business travelers in my network, many of them are still grounded. Those who are not currently grounded seem to be on the sales side of the house where face to face connections are more important in closing large deals that involve senior leadership from the customer. A small percentage of those are on the road again – at least in my network.
The other demographic, in my circle of connections, that tells me they’ve slowly started getting back out was a more technical group – folks who need to be onsite pulling cables or building something. Folks where remote work is not really an option.
It’s the customer’s site where the real problem begins
If I was going to catch this gnarly bug it would have been at the customer’s locations. I visited several customers in different states (each with different political landscapes, if you catch my drift). The experiences varied wildly.
First off, are we shaking hands? Bumping fists? Elbows? Just a nod and a “hey!?” It was all very awkward with fellow customers and employees. What’s the protocol? No one seems to know.
At one customer, it was temp checks before being let into the building and masks ON the entire time. Hand sanitizer was ubiquitous.
Another customer was far less rigorous. Masks were optional, and the customer was not wearing them. In fact, we fit about 10 people into a small conference room, shut the door, and all of our masks came off (mirroring the customer, a sales technique). Handshakes all around, and lots of yelling. If we were going to get it, it would have been there. Only one employee kept his mask on, the rest, myself included, removed them. I hesitated, but ultimately succumbed to peer pressure and took the risk. Not smart, I know.
Another customer met in a giant training room that had tables spaced out in a massive circle. One person to a desk. Masks came off because we were at least 10 feet from each other. But, over the course of the meeting everyone’s vigilance waned. Somebody would come over to another desk and lean in and whisper a small comment, or review a document. All opportunities for something to be passed back and forth.
Here’s where I think the most risk comes from, assuming travelers are relatively safe on the other parts of their trip and where I think companies really need to step up their game by setting clear policies for employee behavior at customer sites while traveling for work.
In talking with fellow employees on our trip they all longed for clearer instructions and guidance. Companies could really remove the discomfort of traveling for work right now, and increase employee safety with clearer guidelines.
- All employees must wear masks when at a customer site at all times – regardless of customer policy (takes the awkwardness out of the situation…”hey, it’s policy”)
- No handshaking among employees or customers, fist bumps are allowed
- Or here is the company provided face mask and hand sanitizer
- Or Airbnbs are now approved properties employees can stay at
And so on. A little more effort by companies would remove some of the friction and concern employees may feel about traveling for work right now and would likely reduce the company’s risk of an employee becoming ill. It would probably also increase a company’s business travel.
And the meals were kind of weird too
The weirdest part of both trips was actually the shared meals we had with fellow employees and customers. During each trip we shared an employee breakfast with ~6-10 employees. Indoors. Seated next to each other. Masks off. To be fair, we did space ourselves out a little bit, but nowhere near the recommended 6 feet (which is obviously impractical for eating).
But the most jarring part of it was actually being in a restaurant eating. Having been cooped up for months and mostly eating home-prepared food, or Postmates delivery, it was unusual, to say the least, to be eating in public with other people. I rather enjoyed it!
Here’s what I did differently from prior travel
While I am quite pleased to NOT have gotten ill on both of these trips, there were a few measures I took above and beyond measures that travel providers or customers were or were not taking
- Wore that damn face mask the whole time while actually in the airport, airplane, rental car shuttle, and hotel lobby
- Wipe the living crap out of my seat area, hotel room, and rental car
- Used more than my fair share of hand sanitizer
- Skipped all snack or beverage service on the plane
- Tried to avoid touching colleagues or employees (although I totally went into automatic mode when I met an employee of mine for the first time for dinner…hand went out, we shook hands. My bad!)
- Was hyper-conscious about touching my face
- Was hyper-aware of how much stuff you come into contact with…sheesh.
- On my second trip, I settled down a little bit mentally and slipped into a more familiar groove
There were parts of these trips that were very familiar and it was nice to get back out there. There were also plenty of times where I was reminded of how different things are.
All of that is to say, that, overall, I felt relatively safe. And, I’d go back out in a heartbeat.
I truly do believe that business travel can be safe now. If done properly.
That said, it seems to still make sense to avoid non-essential travel right now.
And that’s probably the key question right now. Is business travel essential? Certainly, a case can be made that large portions of traditional business travel are not essential right now. They may be preferred or even better, but not essential.
Conversely, there is a very strong case to be made that big chunks of business travel are essential. And that’s probably where we go from here.
To be clear, the CDC’s guidance is straightforward:
Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. You can get COVID-19 during your travels.CDC Guidance
There’s no question that it is safer to stay home. But, we still go shopping at stores. We still get our hair cut. We still do lots of things that are considered essential. And we do so as safely as we can (or at least many of us do).
Is business travel essential? Perhaps.
Oddly, most of the people I saw traveling were probably not doing so because it was essential. Vacations are not essential. And there were a lot of people clearly on vacation.
Oddly, it would seem like business travel should be the first form of travel that makes a comeback, but it clearly won’t be.
Many predict business travel may never recover, while some predict this could be an 18 month kind of thing. Fellow BoardingArea.com blogger Gary Leff recently noted, “I’ve said for a long time that business travel will not be back in 2020 and some portion of it won’t return at all. Yet, I’ve also believed for some time that Covid-19 in the United States will be less than an 18-month event, in that normal life will return by mid-2021.“
He might be right. While I openly mock any prognostication that says business is completely dead, Gary has taken a more pragmatic approach here and I tend to agree with him. Business travel has changed and companies are being more realistic about what travel is truly needed. But, it’s not dead by a long shot.
I’ve taken two trips, felt relatively safe and didn’t die. That’s a start.
How about you? Have you recently traveled for work? How did it go? Is your company thinking of getting staff back on the road again? Drop us a comment below and share your story!
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