Business travelers are ready to get back to hitting the road to go to meetings — 84% of respondents to a recent survey said they plan to travel to attend at least one business meeting over the next six months. And 24% said they anticipate hopping a plane, train or automobile to attend even more conferences, conventions and trade shows than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered most shows in the spring of 2020.
The boom in travel to in-person events runs in parallel to a return to business travel overall, according to the recently released Business Travel Tracker, a new quarterly monitor prepared by Tourism Economics for the U.S. Travel Association, in collaboration with J.D. Power. Respondents to the survey, which measures business travel activity in the U.S. during the most recent quarter, based on surveys and hotel room demand, air passenger volumes, and arrival of international business travelers, said they expected to be traveling for work at approximately the same frequency as they did before the pandemic hit —about 1.6 trips per month on average, compared to 1.7/month before COVID hit. And about half said they were hitting the road to go to conferences, conventions and trade shows, the survey found, about the same percentage as in 2019.
“The return of in-person meetings and events—and business travel in general—is a welcome sight after more than two years of pandemic-related uncertainty,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow. “There is simply no substitute for a face-to-face meeting, which is proven to lead to more fruitful business opportunities and can help power an economic and jobs recovery in communities across America.”
Incentive travel also is expected to recover over the next six months. According to the Business Travel Tracker data, plans to take an incentive trip are up 22% over 2021. Also expected to rise over the next several months are travel to meet with customers, suppliers and stakeholders (up 28%) and externally provided training sessions (up 21%). While meetings with customers and suppliers was the top business purpose cited, attending meetings/conventions/trade shows was next highest on the list, closely followed by incentive travel.
While 24% expected to attend more business events than they did pre-COVID, 6% weren’t so sure. While 13% said this uncertainty was due to lingering business travel restrictions still in place at their company, the most frequently cited reason for not planning to go to meetings in the near future was that meetings and conferences just aren’t happening, at 16%.
While being able to attend meetings and events digitally became standard over the course of the pandemic, meeting professionals don’t need to worry that they have come to prefer meeting screen-to-screen than face-to-face —just 12% said their uncertainty about attending business events in the next six months was due to videoconferencing. As concerns over COVID and pandemic-related restrictions both begin to ease, business travelers are no longer as worried about health and safety concerns keeping them from hitting the road; just 10% said health and safety concerns were what made them hesitant to travel for work over the next six months.
“While the data indicates a strong desire from American business travelers to hit the road again, there is a big difference between willingness to travel and actually taking a trip,” said Dow. “Corporate leaders should seize the competitive advantage, budget for business travel, and encourage their teams to get back on the road and reestablish those personal connections that only come with face-to-face interactions.”
“In-person conferences have relational and financial impacts to corporations that are significant,” said Andrea Stokes, Practice Lead for Hospitality at J.D. Power. “Nearly half of survey respondents indicated that conferences, conventions and trade shows are critical to developing relationships with customers, suppliers or others. Nearly one in four respondents indicated these events are critical to closing sales.” Also at the top of the list business travelers said they plan to attend conferences, conventions and trade shows was building awareness of the organization’s products or services, professional development, employee motivation, and understanding current trends.
Travel to meetings and events is even more important for work-from-home employees, the survey found. Among the reasons employers are encouraging travel for their partially or fully remote workers include engaging with coworkers and team members in person; attending training sessions, attending company/department/team celebrations; and meeting with managers or supervisors in person.