What's the future of business travel?
Futurist Ben Hammersley takes another look at business travel prospects through the lens of 2021
I booked a flight this morning, and it felt weird. Like returning to an old school, or having coffee with a long-since ex, there was a mix of familiarity and a feeling of loss. Eighteen months ago, I was flying 80 times a year but, when that all stopped, the muscle memory I had of the choreography of airline travel was replaced with the keyboard shortcuts for video conference apps. I’m flying in a couple of weeks, and I’m actively worried I’ve forgotten how to do it: I once could juggle my laptop and hand baggage through the security line at Heathrow with all the blissed-out assuredness of a 500-performance Broadway dancer, but can I now? I don’t know.
It doesn’t really matter, of course. The role that constant travel played in my life has been replaced with other things. It’s not part of my identity in the way it once was. Like so many other people, I’ve had to reassess business travel, what it is for, and what it will be like now it is increasingly possible again. All the more so given the nature of my work: I’m a futurist, centred on helping people understand the nature of change in their working lives. When we reassess working practices, or look at fresh innovations, my rule is to look at the changes in the context that those practices exist within. It’s not the travel that’s really changed, after all, but the things we do at the destination. The enforced break in business travel, as with everything else, has allowed us to reconsider what we do, and ask why we do it in the first place.
Business travel, like an office, is a type of tool. We used it to get a job done. And, alongside offices, travel is overdue that reassessment.
Curiously, the ease and simplicity of digital communications, when compared to face-to-face meetings, could actually be a reason to resume some travel, especially with more important and sensitive subjects. The lack of friction in receiving an email or a digital file transfer makes it much easier to conduct business, yes, but also much easier to conduct bad business. The marked rise in ransomware attacks, identity spoofing, industrial espionage, and so on, has combined with the ever more interconnected digital ecosystems found in large organisations to make a return to in-person and on-paper almost inevitable for the highest value and most sensitive of business meetings. Designs and contracts and deals of genuine importance are perhaps too valuable to be exposed to even the systems thought to be the most secure. We’re already seeing documents requiring ‘wet signatures’ over their digital equivalent, and in New York, where I am writing this, office rentals are already advertised as biosecure – with UV sanitation lights, surgical grade air filters, temperature monitoring and all the rest. They are inevitably soon to be joined by informationally secure rooms as well. Air filters alongside Faraday cages, surveillance countermeasures and tightly-controlled, air-gapped, communications. Meeting places proofed against both types of bugs and both types of infections.
An insistence, for security reasons, on shared-air meetings and wet signatures also introduces a set of cultural practices more reminiscent of the past. The presentation of credentials at the door, the special sigils that show current vaccination, identity, and attestations of current health, have become normal at both my daughter’s school and my gym. It is not a stretch for that to extend to workplaces right until it’s realised that having a specific facility for entertaining corporate visitors just makes things easier all round. Especially when you take both InfoSec and hospitality flair into account as well.
Yes, that all does sound expensive. But that might be the point. We’re effectively doubling down on the hidden purpose of business travel: to show status. Travelling thousands of miles to visit a customer shows a level of esteem for them, and resources within yourself, that subconsciously or not is a tremendously flirtatious thing to do. When Google, among many, is demonstrating holographic style video conferencing facilities that are almost, if not quite, the same as being there – as it did during its I/O Conference in May – then actually being there starts to seem as superfluous, and therefore as prestigious, as a diamond ring or a ‘diving’ watch that will never see anything wetter than a Jacuzzi.
But that itchy feeling one gets when talking like this – of business travel being solely transactional, if at some hidden level of branding – cannot be ignored. In truth, while I think that the scenarios above will be true for a subset of people (and certainly, thematically, I suspect I will be using epidemiology as a reason to curtail certain meetings), the opposite will also be true. Seeing people is nice, getting out of the office is nice, travelling to fun places is nice, and travelling away from old places, old people, and old offices, can be especially nice, too. History shows us that people rebound to their favourite things with gusto relatively soon after a pandemic. Perhaps this will be the case with business travel: an explosion of it, but with a different emphasis. More dining, more experiences, more getting out and seeing the place, rather than the old airport-taxi-hotel-taxi-airport bounces of the before times; identikit hotels and office boardrooms replaced with novelty in all things, and no thought of breaching the biosecurity of their offices when a meeting on the waterfront could be all the more fun. And fun, after all the things we’ve faced over the past months, could be the most important profit of all.
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