Are business travel expenses predicting pandemic recovery?

July 15, 2020
Categories: Safety, Health, Partners

Will we ever have a new normal? That’s a question many travelers are asking. 

The stock market is gradually climbing back. The percentage of travelers passing through U.S. airports doubled from April to May and doubled again from May to June compared to the same period last year. Will it continue? 

“Travel will bounce back because travel has become a way of life,” said David Barrett, CEO and founder at Expensify, the world’s most widely-used expense and travel management platform.

“Right now, everyone is cautious but hopeful that things will get better. We’re seeing domestic travel slowly opening up and people feeling comfortable taking those trips, and naturally, they’ll start looking for an opening to travel internationally again,” he said.

“Popular destinations, like Venice for example, normally tend to be super crowded. When places start to reopen, they’ll think, ‘Hmm, Venice is empty. Venice has never been empty before… it probably won’t be empty for a long time. I should go now before the crowds get there!’ People will make the calculations for themselves, but I would not be surprised to see Venice crowded again within a month of places reopening,” he said.

Barrett has unique, data-driven insight from his business that affords him a compelling perspective. While many news outlets are telling stories about record virus outbreaks in some states and localities, the data from Expensify is revealing something else about coronavirus pandemic-era travel.

“Domestic travel is re-emerging, gradually and steadily,” he said, adding, “No one is flying internationally now, especially out of the States. But domestic travel tells a more promising story. Our data is showing that domestic travel is 30% back to where we were. It’s not jumping back, rather it’s gradually marching up.”

The Coronavirus Impact on Business Travel

Barrett said travel-related expenses dropped off precipitously in March and April before bouncing back. “We ran aground in May when we saw business travel hit an all-time low. Since then, it has been a steady, linear climb up once some places started reopening,” he said.  

The dips and increases across expense categories like airfare, lodging and automobile rentals changed in parallel. The only definite shift revealed through mileage expenses was toward increased driving as a mode of transportation. 

Barrett says the coronavirus outbreak didn’t impact small, medium, or large businesses any differently. 

“The need for business travel is based more on company type rather than company size. The pandemic doesn’t seem to be changing the behavior of small businesses any differently than large businesses,” he said. 

The main shift, as many workers already know, has been from working in offices to remote working, relying on teleconferencing for meetings, scrums, and even conferences. But Barrett predicts, the pandemic will leave a lingering suspicion of physical contact, even after travel becomes safe. 

“This will call into question the need to visit clients on-site or attend a conference,” he said, adding that risk managers and business leaders face a new question that has to be asked today and in the foreseeable future. 

“How concerned are people about the health consequences of on-site, in-person gatherings? This is a question I don’t think anyone has really had to ask before,” he said. 

The pandemic has pushed people to re-evaluate risk and business travel coronavirus concerns. It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent looking to travel for a long-awaited vacation or a corporate risk manager looking for boundaries on the determinants to invite employees back to the office, send them off for business-related domestic trips and — at some point — international trips, too.

Similarly, travelers within America’s borders are rapidly discovering that getting sick or injured during a trip is bad enough. A Global Rescue member recently traveled with his family 110 miles from his New York City home. Soon after, he requested help to identify local urgent care centers where he and his family could be tested for virus antibodies and infection. 

The Global Rescue medical operations team investigated the area, vetted multiple resources, and provided the member with the needed information. But having to manage all the different resources, phone numbers, and contacts is an added hassle that travel protection services can take off your shoulders. Barrett highlighted this as the driving force behind Expensify’s decision to partner with Global Rescue.

Each year, Barrett and his team travel overseas to work for a month in locations like Portugal, Cambodia, Thailand, and Italy as a way to bring employees together. These trips also help advance the team’s understanding of what an international traveler’s experience is like, including in remote places.

“One of the things we found in looking for a consistent, high-quality travel experience is dealing with medical care. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but if you don’t know the language, the hospital system, or what the medicine is, then it becomes a really stressful and distracting experience,” he said. 

“We think that medical care is one of the base functions of travel and Global Rescue is the most consistent global experience for providing access to medical care both internationally and domestically,” he said. 

So, what does the new normal look like? 

“I think we’re going to forget all of this super-fast. Once people see travel opportunities they’ll leap back in,” Barrett said. “However, planning for unexpected medical needs while traveling should always be factored into business and personal travel.”

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