What does the future of business travel look like?
The second instalment of our monthly business panel sees futurist Ben Hammersley look ahead to how he thinks business travel might change – or not – post pandemic
We must think of the future. While travel today is a different experience to how it has been, this doesn't mean it will remain this way. Thinking of the future of travel isn’t about thinking about travel with Covid, but about travel in the post-Covid, fully vaccinated future. A future where many of us will have become used to the travel replacements of video conferencing, meetings in virtual realities, and the rest.
Business travel, therefore, might transform into something more prestigious. After all, in the face of ever better remote collaboration and meeting tools, the additional effort it requires to step away from Zoom, find some presentable trousers and get on a plane to travel thousands of miles to sit in front of someone might seem frivolous. But that’s exactly what gives it its power.
The overt display of excessive resource use makes the business travel of the future a prestige event. It becomes a signal that both the meeting, and the people you are meeting with, are extremely important. And in the time lag between travel becoming epidemiologically safe, and the understanding of that safety being re-embedded in the culture, the act of travel for a business meeting takes on an even greater air of luxurious expense. It’s the peacock tail for the solicitous executive: social signalling of the more present kind. The semiotics of business travel in the post-Covid peri-Zoom era might be full of implied glossiness and a return of a ‘jet set’ whose whole role is to flamboyantly, effortfully come to see you.
But all of that is quite presumptuous. It presupposes that business travel is all about pre-arranged meetings and set agendas. It is not. Indeed, the very thing lacking, the very thing those of us who mourn the loss of our travel-centric lifestyles are concerned with, is not the ritualised meet and greet but the serendipitous discovery. Travel of any form will broaden the horizon, but business travel can make this a specific mission. In the post-Covid era, there will be a strategic advantage to those who wander farther afield than their webcam. If you change your information environment, you give yourself new perspectives on old problems. Most people do this by accident, if they can’t avoid it completely. The business traveller of the future will be doing so on purpose.
Travel of any form will broaden the horizon, but business travel can make this a specific mission.
And that purpose inevitably brings along its own implications: it will no longer do to travel in the manner of the Before Times, with the balanced but unexciting home-airport-airplane-taxi-hotel-taxi-airport-airplane-home choreography between identikit buildings. If I’m travelling for a new perspective, it’s no good to have the same experience, décor, and tired room service menu everywhere I go. What would previously have been streamlined and comforting might rankle for lack of novelty value, especially when it is the novelty that is the very value I seek.
This idea of business travel as freeform anthropological field trip is rich for development, even, perhaps especially, if regular non-business travel remains rare for a good while longer. After all, there is a direct connection between venture and adventure. The proverbial someone whose ship has come in, and who is now well off, was a venture capitalist who funded the sea voyages of adventurers in exchange for a share of their precious cargo. What used to be spices or plundered gold is now ideas and insight, connections and collaborations. Indeed, within my own work, as a futurist and advisor on innovation, many of the best-case studies have come not from people inventing something entirely new, but from those importing something entirely unexpected from elsewhere. Not technologies, but culture: ways of doing things that you can only experience when you go far enough afield for their differences to be obvious.
This idea of weaponising novelty for commercial gain might give some pause. It’s hardly the romantic wanderings of a weekend in Paris, or Florence without a guidebook, untethered from daily concerns and neighbourly witnesses. But that brings us to another purpose of business travel in the coming years: anonymity.
There is a direct connection between venture and adventure
It’s undoubtedly true that today’s internet can give anyone communication abilities and situational awareness beyond the dreams of even the most powerful a decade ago. I can summon data about almost every system in my life to my screens within seconds: from the air quality outside of my window and live traffic data upstream in my commute, to the exact mix of energy sources that are generating the electricity I am using while writing this, the state of the cloud services I run my business on, and minute-by-minute updates on political news from halfway around the world. But everything I look at, every move I make in the digital sphere, I am doing traceably.
I mean that in two ways. Firstly, yes, in the literal sense that without explicit precautions it is hard to engage with the world online without that engagement being recorded somewhere, and that data being mined for its implications and inferences. Advertisers, governments, corporate IT managers, ISPs – all know to a greater or lesser extent what you’re looking at. And there can be clever things your rivals can do with that: merger deals have been revealed by executives individually checking into the same restaurants on Foursquare, CIA bases in Central Asia have been decloaked by agents logging their morning runs on Strava out of force of habit.
But the real anonymity that travel gives us is anonymity to ourselves. Being able to wake up in a new place and live out an invented role, an invented identity, just for that day, is a fantasy for many, but for business, perhaps, it’s more a necessity. We travel to meet others, understand others and take inspiration from them, yes. But we also travel to meet ourselves: to try ourselves out in new places and see how we fit. The futures of our lives, not just our businesses, depend on our ability to adapt and change and grow in the strangeness of tomorrow. Travel can bring that experience to us today, and business travel even more so: venturing forth, that we may return anew.
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