Business travel recovery sentiment remains ‘solid’ but recent rise in Delta variant infections has introduced ‘new concerns and travel considerations’

The business travel industry continues to report an overall willingness and optimism about the return to business travel, but the rise of the Delta variant and other variants has become a cause for uncertainty and increased concern over the past month, according to the findings of an Aug-2021 Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) poll of its membership.

This latest poll, the 22nd in a series tracking the pulse of GBTA’s membership of global travel buyers, suppliers and other stakeholders on how the business travel industry overall is navigating the return to travel, post pandemic, included additional specific questions about the Delta variant and other variants and their potential impact on business travel.

While business travel “continues to make progress and show small gains on the road to recovery,” the Delta variant has “introduced a bit of a detour, at least for the near term,” acknowledges Suzanne Neufang, CEO, GBTA. “With the support of adequate risk mitigation, travellers continue getting back to business during a pandemic that is not going away as quickly as hoped,” she adds.

The responses to the poll show positivity remains but that optimism is starting to slow. One-third (34%) of supplier and travel management company respondents say they are optimistic about the financial prospects of companies in the business travel sector, but less so compared to a month ago. An additional one in four (38%) says they feel “neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” however, one in four (26%) says they feel pessimistic about the industry’s financial prospects.

GBTA stakeholders are “concerned” or “very concerned” about the revenue impact the Delta variant poses to companies when it comes to revenue in the business travel sector (85%), employment/re-hiring (79%) and the safety of business travel (78%). Just under half (44%) felt it would have a “very negative” impact, while 37% indicated it would have a “moderate” negative impact. In terms of bookings, one in three (31%) reported a decrease, compared to the prior week, versus just 3% in the Jul-2021 poll.

Eight in ten travel buyers/procurement professionals who work for companies that have not yet resumed non-essential business travel report their company is likely to delay the resumption of non-essential domestic (81%) and international (79%) business travel due to the Delta variant (and other emerging variants). Business travel for large, medium and small meetings, events or conferences were also most frequently cited as being cancelled or suspended due to COVID-19 variants, according to respondents.

Still, despite growing concerns about the Delta variant, only one in five (21%) GBTA stakeholders say their company has introduced new restrictions on non-essential business travel at this point. Almost half (49%) said their company is unlikely to introduce new restrictions, while one in four (25%) are considering introducing new restrictions.

Interestingly, respondents from Europe (66%) are more likely than those in North America (45%) to report their company is unlikely to introduce new restrictions on non-essential business travel specifically as a result of the Delta variant (or other variants) and/or the growing number of COVID-19 cases in many countries.

In the Aug-2021 poll, seven in ten (72%) GBTA travel buyers felt their employees are ‘willing’ or ‘very willing’ to travel for business in the current environment (fairly consistent, but down slightly on the 77% who said the same in Jul-2021). Non-essential domestic business travel continues to be more frequently allowed – in terms of travel in the past 30 days, 60% reported it is “sometimes” or “usually” allowed.

Over half of GBTA members and stakeholders report they expect business travel will see a significant (8%) or moderate (47%) increase in the Sep-2021 to Nov-2021 time frame. Respondents from Europe (75%) are more likely than those in North America (51%) to expect that business travel will see a significant or moderate increase in this timeframe.

The Delta clouds have not yet had an impact on travel spend. Over half (56%) travel buyers and procurement professionals reported their company’s spending increased “somewhat” to “a lot” in Aug-2021 versus the previous month. Almost half (46%) travel suppliers and travel management companies said their own bookings had remained the same over recent weeks.

However, poll respondents in Aug-2021 did report a slight increase in re-opening international and domestic travel versus the month prior. In the current poll, 78% had not opened international travel, compared to 86% in Jul-2021, while 41% have not re-opened domestic travel, versus 50% last month. Fewer respondents (51%) reported they continue to suspend or cancel all business travel regardless of location (down from 60% in the July poll).

Almost half of respondents said vaccine requirements to perform key business functions are not typically required. Approximately one in five reported their company requires employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in order to travel domestically for business (21%), meet customers face-to-face (22%), work in the office (20%) and attend large meetings, conferences or events (22%). However, approximately one in four report they are unsure about their company’s vaccine requirements for travel for key business functions.

Respondents from Europe (66%) are more likely than those in North America (52%) to report their company will not require employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before they can meet with clients and customers face-to-face. Respondents in Europe (62%) were more likely than those in North America (49%) to report their company will not require employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before they can attend large (more than 500 attendees) meetings or events.

Most respondents (79%) also reported their company has procedures in place for contact tracing should an employee become infected with COVID-19, with just one in five (21%) reporting their company does not have procedures in place for contact tracing.

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