Business travel as we knew it ‘is not coming back’ as we move from mass to meaningful travel

Travelling for business has emerged to be the type of travel people miss the least and as such it will likely mean it will be very different in type and scale in the future. Recent research of over 1,000 American adults by ClearPath Strategies for online accommodation marketplace Airbnb found that the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic has meant traveller mindsets have been altered and business travel is now the lowest of their priorities.

This will influence who we consider business travel in the future. “Business travel as we knew it is not coming back,” predicts Airbnb in its report ‘From Isolation to Connection – Travel in 2021’. Its research indicates that more than one third (36%) of Americans expect to travel less for work after the pandemic compared to before it began. Plus, the pandemic has “institutionalised remote working for many companies,” says Airbnb, with its research showing two in five Americans (41%) are able to work or study from home at least some of the time.

An earlier survey by ClearPath Strategies in Sep-2020, discovered one in three (35%) respondents said it will become more common post-pandemic for people to relocate to new places so they can take advantage of the ability to work remotely.

As employees become more widely distributed across, “a greater share of business travel will likely consist of employees traveling from these locations to gather at their workplaces,” says Airbnb. However, many others argue that inter-company meetings and business travel to connect with colleagues could be the area that we actually see the most substitution from virtual technology platforms.

Airbnb’s research predicts that 2021 will see a shift toward more meaningful travel as the pandemic continues to limit mass tourism and afflict the industry overall. When travel returns in 2021, it believes it will be about connecting with loved ones through more personal trips, with mass tourism unlikely to return at any scale this year.

Once people feel safe to travel, they will. But it will look different than before the pandemic. Travel will be viewed as an antidote to isolation and disconnection. People don’t generally miss landmarks, crowded shuttles, and lines and lobbies packed with tourists,” says Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky.

“Mass travel is really just a different form of isolation—you are anonymous, herded around with other travellers, never really experiencing the people and culture of a community. What people want from travel now is what they’ve been deprived of, spending meaningful time with their family and friends,” he adds.

The survey found Americans are feeling isolated and lonely. More than half feel less connected to their extended family (53%), feel less connected to their friends (53%), feel less connected to their local community (56%), less connected to their fellow Americans (58%) and the rest of the world (59%). Approaching one quarter of Americans (24%) report feeling either loneliness or emptiness.

Travelling for pleasure is the out-of-home activity Americans have missed the most and actually just thinking about travel makes people feel significantly happier (by 18 percentage points) and more hopeful (by 9 points) than they otherwise do on a typical day. A majority of Americans are ready to travel again, according to the research. More than half (54%) have either already booked, are currently planning to travel, or expect to travel in 2021. This includes 57% of 18- to 29-year-olds, and 60% of 30- to 49-year-olds.

One attribute specific to the first post-pandemic trip is that people are seeking a sense of calm and security. The top emotions they want to feel during that first trip are “relaxed” (44%), “comfortable” (34%) and “safe” (33%).

Looking beyond the first trip, Americans still prioritise travel to be close to family (32%) but equally prioritise a new experience or destination (31%), preferably nearby, followed by a return to a favourite destination (25%).

Older Americans (50+) are most interested in future travel to be close to family (33%) and to revisit a favourite spot (32%), followed by a new experience or destination (29%). Younger Americans remain most interested in a second trip as a new experience or destination (35%), followed by being close to family (31%), being close to nature (23%) and returning to a favourite place (23%).

The introduction of social distancing rules in many countries will also have a long lasting impact on public perceptions and there will continue to be a strong desire to avoid the crowds, meaning many travellers will look away from the traditional popular destinations.

Airbnb’s research indicates that more than half (51%) travellers are more interested in being isolated beyond major tourist areas than they are in being “surrounded by people and energy” (just one in four: 24%). On Airbnb’s on platform, most nights booked in 2H 2019, were in larger cities, but in 2020, smaller destinations within driving distance of big cities saw major growth in demand.

Before the pandemic hit, its top 10 destination cities for the second half of 2019, by nights stayed, were Barcelona, Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, New York City, Paris, Rome, Seoul and Toronto. In 2020, smaller, lower-profile destinations saw major growth in demand and these, it says, and these dominate the destinations with the largest year-over-year increases in searches for 2021 bookings. Topping this list are Derbyshire, UK; Rodanthe, on the coast of North Carolina; Forks, Washington, the main setting for the Twilight series; and the Muskoka Lakes, a few hours’ drive from Toronto.

The pandemic has also shaped people’s views of what it means to travel responsibly. Given a range of possible definitions, the top choice of survey respondents was “avoiding risky behaviours” (21%) and the second most popular choice was “respecting local health protocols” (17%), says Airbnb. In total, 87% said that traveling responsibly was important to them (62% called it “very important”).

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