Business travel outlook is strong but Omicron variant continues to dampen near-term momentum

1 February, 2022

New variant developments, government restrictions, and international policy inconsistencies are currently hindering a more accelerated return for global business travel, notes the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), but positively the industry continues to reflect progress and optimism in its long-view expectations for 2022.

The observation is supported by findings from the latest in GBTA's COVID-19 Recovery series, a poll tracking the pulse of global travel buyers, supplier members and other stakeholders as the industry navigates business travel during pandemic times. The latest edition for Jan-2022 is the 25th monthly insight into the industry.

Although there are clear signs of optimism, the business travel industry and business travellers continue to face a dynamically changing landscape due to Omicron. One comment received from a poll respondent readily sums it up, explains Suzanne Neufang, CEO, GBTA: "Uncertainty is a huge wet blanket on [business] travel." However, despite the ongoing wave of Omicron and the obvious "ripple of challenges it has created," Ms Neufang acknowledges "there are positive signs" and industry professionals continue to be "optimistic for the long-term outlook of global business travel".

A clear optimism for longer-term recovery

The GBTA Jan-2022 poll reveals that three in four travel managers expect business travel volume at their company will be much (17%) or somewhat (58%) higher in 2022 than it was in 2021. Another one in ten (12%) expect business travel to remain about the same as 2021, but few (5%) expect it to be lower.

Among travel suppliers and travel management companies (TMCs), three in four expect their company's revenue in 2022 from business travel to be much (25%) or somewhat (51%) higher compared to 2021. An additional one in ten (13%) suppliers and TMCs expect their company's revenue to remain about the same as 2021.  

A decline in company travel cancellations

The poll results show a decline in the percentage of companies who continue to suspend or cancel business travel. More than two-thirds (68%) of GBTA member companies have not yet opened international travel, compared to 79% in the Oct-2021 GBTA poll, and 29% have not opened domestic business travel versus 38% in Oct-2021. Less than four in ten (38% versus 48% in Oct-2021) of respondents report their company has suspended or cancelled all or most business travel regardless of location.

Omicron wave has increased corporate concerns

According to the GBTA survey, six in ten (60%) suppliers/TMCs report their bookings from corporate clients decreased from the month prior. One in five (21%) characterise their bookings from corporate customers as having increased, but another one in five (19%) report their bookings remained the same. 

A majority of suppliers and TMCs surveyed are concerned about the impact of Omicron on their company's revenue. Seven in ten report Omicron will likely have a "very negative" (32%) or "moderately negative" (38%) impact on their company's revenue derived from business travel. An additional one in four feel Omicron will have either a "slightly negative" (20%) or no impact (3%) on business revenue. 

Learning lessons as new variants emerge

When asked to compare Omicron and Delta variant concerns, respondents to the survey were more positive but still divided. Two in five report they are either less worried (43%) about Omicron compared to Delta or are equally concerned (45%). Only one in ten (13%) say they are more worried about Omicron versus Delta.

It appears that relatively few companies have introduced new travel restrictions due to the Omicron variant. Only one in four (27%) travel managers/procurement officers report in GBTA survey that their company has introduced new travel restrictions or requirements, whereas two-thirds (67%) report their company has not. More than half (52%) reported their company is unlikely to do so. 

Government policies 'that restrict travel or make it difficult' remain key hurdle

When asked in the survey to name the single greatest barrier to business travel, 43% of survey respondents cited government policies that restrict travel or make it difficult (such as entry restrictions or mandatory quarantines).

Travel managers based in the UK (66%) and Europe (62%) were more likely than those in North America (33%) to cite government policies as being the single greatest barrier to business travel. Conversely, North American travel managers (27%) were more likely than those in Europe (15%) to say company policies restricting employees from traveling is the biggest barrier.

 Other top business travel barriers named included company policies restricting employees from travelling (24%), employee unwillingness/reluctance to travel (9%), offices not being fully open (9%), and travel budget freeze or cost savings (6%).

Policy uncertainty trumps restrictions on international travel

When asked to name barriers specifically to international business travel, respondents said policy uncertainty (72%), strict requirements on international visitors (69%), policy inconsistencies across different countries (64%), and required documentation and paperwork (45%).

Despite Omicron, the research indicates most travel managers feel employees are willing to travel. Two in three (64%) feel their employees are "willing" or "very willing" to travel for business in the current environment. However, this was down from 78% in the Oct-2021 GBTA poll, highlighting that Omicron has impacted perceptions.

A majority of seven in ten (72%) GBTA members and stakeholders report they would definitely or probably would travel for business. However, respondents based in Europe (49%) are more likely than those based in North America (35%) to report their company has cancelled all or most business trips.