German study sends warning on business travel recovery – one in nine companies see levels down more than 50% in the future and three quarters see it being over 30%

9 October, 2020

We know that businesses will look very differently at corporate travel in the future, but the scale of change remains unclear. Technology will be a substitution to some degree, as will general changes in habits. The latest update of a study from German buyer-led business travel association VDR (Verband Deutsches Reisemanagement e.V.) suggests how profound those changes could be.

The association represents a cross section of the German economy with its membership stretching to over 560 member companies including large corporate groups, SMEs, organisations and service providers to the business travel management sector covering any form of business travel from rail and air to rental cars.

The latest addition of its VDR barometer, a fortnightly insight into the mood of its members on business travel highlights some notable trends, most notably a more pessimistic outlook on the number of trips expected to take place in the future.

The general belief among those surveyed by VDR has always been that the number of business trips will decrease by up to 30%, but that now has risen by almost ten percentage points from 53.4% in late Jul-2020 to 62.7% in the latest edition from 05-Oct-2020.

A level of optimism through the summer had seen those expecting business trips to decrease by up to 50% reduce from 13.5% in late Jul-2020 to 7.9% in early Sep-2020, but that has now subsequently risen again in the past two editions to 10.5% on 18-Sep-2020 and now 12.0% on 05-Oct-2020. Just 1.3% of respondents now think busines strips will return to pre-pandemic levels, down from a high of 7.2% on 10-Aug-2020.

It is concerning for all within the corporate travel sector that touching three quarters (74.7%) of respondents believe that the number of business trips being taken in a post-Covid world will be down by approaching a third.

We have to be cautious though when studying the findings as responses are obviously heavily influenced by wider environment. German handled the original European wave of Covid-19 infections better than almost all other countries in the region, but like many others is being enveloped by a second wave.

Germany is experiencing a "worrying jump" in coronavirus cases, its health minister Jens Spahn said this week, as the number of new daily infections soared past 4,000 for the first time since early Apr-2020. Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany's Robert Koch Institute for disease control, also warned the country could see an uncontrollable spread of the virus.

The government has called for citizens to again avoid travel abroad, while Germany's 16 states are also tightening rules for domestic travel, with many agreeing a ban on overnight stays in hotels or holiday apartments for visitors from so-called risk zones within the country.

Places where new infections top 50 per 100,000 inhabitants over the last seven days are classed as risk zones, and local authorities are required to take specific measures to halt contagion. Parts of central Berlin have slipped into the category and numbers in Germany's financial capital, Frankfurt, are also rising and approaching also being deemed within the risk-zone category.

It is true that Germanys levels are again significantly below those being seen right now in France, Spain and the United Kingdom, but Mr Wieler acknowledges that Germans must be wary of what he describes as the "prevention paradox" - the feeling that measures were no longer needed because case numbers were relatively low.

"The current situation worries me a lot. We don't know how the situation in Germany will develop in the coming weeks. It's possible we'll see more than 10,000 new cases a day, it's possible the virus will spread out of control," he said during a press conference.

The responses in VDR's fortnightly business travel barometer suggests that companies are getting a little concerned. The number that allow unlimited business travel has shrunk from over 12% in Aug-2020 to just 4.8% in the latest edition. But still, only 1.2% continue to ban business travel without exception, regardless of the reason for the trip with the vast majority (94.1%) allowing business trips in justified exceptional cases, such as for business-critical appointments.

The rise in local cases is certainly responsible for a fall in businesses allowing trips within Germany without restriction - down from 28.6% in the previous edition to 18.2%. However, over three quarters still allow business trips within Germany depending on the potential risk of Covid-19 infection in the target region. An even higher percentage (80.5%) will allow trips within Europe under the same condition.

The increasing Covid-19 infections could also have influenced a rise in companies seeing internal travel restrictions now extending beyond the first quarter of 2021, growing to 19.4% - almost five times the number suggesting such a timescale back in the first half of Aug-2020.

As we are seeing in many other countries there is an obvious modal substitution taking place in Germany among business travellers. According to the VDR barometer more than three quarters of businesses (76%) said they will be travelling more often by car within Germany and one fifth (20%) by train, and both are up on levels recorded in the summer. Less than one in ten (9.3%) said the pandemic will not affect the choice of means of transport, down from 14.3% in the July edition.

Around a third (32.9%) of the respondents said the service and hygiene concepts of airlines are satisfactory, but 56.2% still highlight differences between the various providers as a concern. For the hotel industry a slightly larger percentage (39.7%) describe it as satisfactory, with over half (54.8%) still concerned over the varied responses.

Germany has proposed a framework to allow restriction-free travel for regions with fewer than 25 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 population over a prior 14 day period, based on a colour coded system of the EU27 nations, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. This will be based around enabling travel between 'green' designated countries even if certain regions in the specified country are designated as 'red', updated on a weekly basis by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.