How Potential Vaccines and Rapid Testing will Impact 2021 Business Travel Recovery

Over the past few weeks, we have experienced a considerable rise in Covid-19 cases around the world, resulting in new country lockdowns, regressions on business operations and schools returning to virtual learning. As disappointing as this is, the past few weeks also shed some considerable light on the opportunities for a business travel resurgence as 2021 approaches through airport and airline rapid testing offerings and the encouraging news of three vaccines heading towards government approval.

Multiple studies, including this report co-authored by several Harvard School of Public Health Experts, have validated air travel as safer than most daily routines. These studies have provided a sense of comfort to leisure travel, which has resumed to 50% of 2019 levels. However, business travel continues to be more conservative. This article outlines an industry overview, as well as our thoughts on what the 2021 Travel Outlook will be.

Corporations have been adjusting their business travel policies to ensure their travelers remain safe while balancing revised growth expectations and profitability. The vast majority of companies agree that in-person meetings produce a higher return on investment for both organic business growth as well as new business partnerships, yet virtual conferences, internal meetings and zoom presentations have had to take the front seat for 2020. While most companies plan for a hybrid of zoom and in-person meetings throughout 2021, the need for balance and confidence in safety and traveler monitoring must be in place in order for in-person business travel to resume.

This need for confidence will be largely based upon the combination of three independent components:

  • Regional Virus Containment
  • Airline and Airport Rapid Testing to Avoid Quarantine Requirements
  • Readily-Available Vaccine. 

It is the combination of these three elements that will support each country’s – and each company’s – plan for a responsible return to travel.

Countries around the world are taking more proactive measures to reduce the spread of the virus through various phases of lockdowns, curfews and limited social gatherings. With recent surveys suggesting Travel and Procurement Managers believe containment will support the return to travel, only 24% stated this would be a driving factor. Although much is dependent on individuals complying to such recommendations and requirements, data is supporting the effectiveness of limiting groups and the consistent wearing of masks.

Whether domestically in the US, or for international destinations, data is readily available to determine the current status of virus containment for each destination. Travelers and risk managers can access the destination information here, including daily shifts in new cases for each major city to help guide the employees in making their travel decisions.

(Click Here to View Full-Size Infographic)

To eliminate the need for extended quarantine requirements, many airlines and airports are providing access to testing either before the trip departure, or upon arrival. Designed to mitigate risk for business travel, carriers are providing tests based initially on key destinations. Over the holidays, the majority of the origins/destinations are to drive further leisure travel, however, we are also seeing expansion between key business origins/destinations including New York to London, as well as JFK to Italy.

Airports also working to stimulate further traffic are providing on-site testing centers, and partnerships with vendors including XpresSpa to utilize their facilities to conduct tests. It is through these partnerships that the current list of testing sites is expected to exponentially increase over the coming months to add traveler convenience and increase demand for travel.

At the time of publishing this article, three bio firms have stated successful results of their human trials with over 150 coronavirus vaccines in development across the world.  This week the UK approved distribution of the Pfizer vaccine, and the FDA is expected to approve distribution for the US next week.

The World Health Organization is coordinating global efforts with an eye on delivering two billion doses by the end of 2021. Although the operational aspect of the distribution seems overwhelming, the CDC has published a Vaccination Program Interim Playbook which outlines their recommendations, program participants and requirements for distribution approvals. Although timelines have not been validated, it is expected that Phase 2 would commence in the second quarter of 2021.

Business analysts, including a recent study by S&P, believe business travel may not fully recover to 2019 levels until 2024. This information was ahead of the positive vaccine news, however has merit in that 2021 is likely to have a 46-60% return on business travel over 2019.

Expectations for business travel to resume will be largely seen in companies with comprehensive risk management and travel policy requirements. Throughout the pandemic, the role of Travel/Procurement Managers and the necessity for a managed-travel program has been a major topic of focus of executive management and Board members, with over 48% of companies enhancing their program to improve and define traveling parameters more than they did prior to Covid-19.

Those companies that are well-prepared for pre-trip risk assessment, and then the ability to monitor and communicate with travelers globally in the event support or medical services required, will reduce corporate liability and provide a more confident traveling population.

There is no question that travel planning will require flexibility. Fortunately, the majority of airline carriers have supported flexible changes in travel with removal or waiver of change fees and other economic drivers that have historically impacted business travel budgets. Travel Incorporated has developed easy reporting and unused ticket monitoring tools to support the reissue of unused tickets, monitor fare reductions, and to provide the guidance and technology to support your travel program’s need for spend management.

The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) poll last month revealed that companies expect their employees to return to in-person events in 2021. Almost 45% expect attendance to resume in the first half of the year, with an additional 25% expecting a return to in-person events in the second half of 2021. 

While 1 in 4 companies still have a wait and see approach due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, 37% of GBTA members are expecting to host some or many meetings or events in Q1, with a much more optimistic view of a total of 62% by mid-year. It is unlikely that 2021 will see large group conferences, with the majority of the meetings and events being small to medium size groups.

Georgia Tech’s new interactive map shows the likelihood of coming in contact with Covid-19 based on the size of the event you are attending, and the county in which the event will be held.  Locations for the meetings will be largely driven by seasonality, warmer climates with increased outdoor capacity.

Travel Incorporated has provided a Covid Hub which includes significant information for you and your traveler’s education and information. This includes helpful links to data, testing and reentry requirements, as well as practical tools to support your revised policies and Duty of Care program.  


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