Will corporate travel be replaced by virtual meetings or will the innate need for human interaction face to face prevail?
Over the last 20 years, as online meeting technology has progressed it’s often been predicted that this will replace the need for actual “in person” meetings and therefore lead to a substantial reduction in future levels of business travel. However, up until now, the prediction has never come true.
Covid-19 has forced businesses to adopt online meetings as a daily way of conducting operations – at least for the short term. The usage of online meetings has increased exponentially over the last three months, where for example, the usage of Zoom went from 10 million participants a day in December 2019 to 300 million daily participants in April 2020.
This has caused the question to be raised again; will the current shift in corporate behaviour away from the aircraft and towards the laptop and video conferencing screens become permanent? How much travel demand will come back, when will it return to its pre-virus levels and will demand patterns be different than before?
Whilst video meetings may well have been accelerated to the forefront of the corporate mind and the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an enforced basin trial of this technology proving itself invaluable in the crisis, many already complain of ‘death by Zoom’ as the new ‘death by PowerPoint’.
Colin Goldney, MD, UK & Europe for Wings observes “In any economic downturn, let alone current pandemic, there is naturally an immediate focus on the cost base of any business and travel is one of the first areas that a company will look towards. Given such pressure, it is vital that businesses and their appointed Travel Management Companies work together and see travel as an investment in their future and not just a cost threat to their present.”
“While business travel and video meetings will have to find a way to co-exist in the workplace as we emerge from lockdown, the desire, and more importantly the need to conduct face-to-face meetings, will gather momentum as confidence in travel and hopefully a vaccine for the virus emerge,” says Simon Dugan Head of Business Development UK & Europe for Wings. “A vaccine for the virus could prove to be the silver bullet for business travel recovery, but corporates will have a conflict between getting essential travel moving again mixed with feels of uncertainty.”
In the short term business leaders may see video conferencing/meetings as a way to reduce costs and strengthen bottom line in a challenging time for corporate budgets, however, as is always the case, a competitor in the market will seize the opportunity to invest in travel for business development functions and c suite executives to build new relationships and strengthen existing ones to retain the invaluable business they have.
Depth and quality of face-to-face time cannot be replicated online and for sales as not all deals can be closed online. According to Carmen Hidalgo, Head of Business Development Wings SA, “Some of our traditional corporate sectors are taking longer to embrace the move online – i.e. Mining, Engineering, Manufacturing, FMCG being among them. These industries/sectors still comprise of many labour intensive positions that absolutely require in person or face-to-face interactions.”
“When it comes to certain positions within a corporate structure, it would be hard not to mention sales as a profession. It has been stated previously that face-to-face meetings can increase closing by up to 30% more,” Hidalgo adds. “We are now faced with an interesting combination of the online based sales world but still wanting to make a personal impact face-to-face in order to close deals.”
“We are currently seeing the green shoots of recovery across some of our corporate client base. Outside of the need to travel for customers and prospects, many internal meetings are essential too as some corporates have global or regional sales ‘kick-off’s’. These are designed to get teams together and interacting, sharing ideas and building relationships while setting out the objectives for the coming year. It is hard to imagine these meetings working over video and is easy to imagine how crucial these meetings will be for next year,” says Dugan.
According to Liraz Margalit Ph.D.in her article, The Psychology Behind Social Media Interactions, it appears that, compared to interactions with computers, social interaction ‘activates’ a consistent set of brain areas. These regions are in charge of making inferences about other human minds. One distinctive attribute of human social cognition is our tendency to build models of other minds, which helps us make inferences about the mental states of others. When interacting with other people, we automatically make inferences about them without even being consciously aware of it. We cannot help but ponder what they are thinking about, what their facial expressions mean, what their intentions are, and so on. This predisposition is what makes social interactions so demanding.
This suggests that interaction with human partners requires more emotional involvement, and thus more cognitive effort. This is because when we interact with another human being, we cannot control our emotional involvement invested in the interaction process. The activation of specific brain areas is automatic once our mental radar detects another person.
So although we may be unaware of why it so often feels easier to interact through a computer (particularly when we are feeling tired or drained), the conclusion is clear: A computer does not require cognitive or emotional involvement, making our interaction with it much easier.
The answers are all interlaced because all the factors that figure into the formation of demand; price, capacity, and the perceived value of the business travel experience; are all highly variable as well as intricately intertwined and interdependent. But one thing though is for sure. The demand for business travel will return.