Sustainability is increasingly becoming a competitive factor in choosing service providers for business travel in Germany as local industry recovers from an all-time low

A survey of German travel managers has found sustainability is increasingly becoming a competitive factor in choosing service providers for business travel. A very high majority of commercial travel managers (90%) and almost all of them in the public sector (97%) reported they expect sustainability criteria will develop into a competitive factor that has some impact on choosing service providers, according to latest research from VDR, Germany’s business travel association.

Notably, the percentage of small and mediums sized enterprises expecting sustainability criteria to impact business travel decisions increased from 45% in a similar survey in 2020 to 91% in 2021, while 73% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and 85% of large firms reported they have implemented or plan to implement measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from travel.

The findings came as VDR reported that German business travel collapsed more than four fifths in 2020, down -81.7% on the previous year with spending by German companies and public institutions falling to EUR10.1 billion. This represented the lowest total since VDR started collecting annual data just under 20 years ago.

There were a total of 32.7 million business trips on behalf of German businesses and public sector organisations (-83.3%), by 3.3 million business travellers (-74.9%), according to VDR. Public sector travel was down -78.3% and trips by firms with less than 500 staff were down by -81.6%.

“The results show painfully the force with which the COVID-19 pandemic hit companies and providers in the business travel industry,” explained Inge Pirner, vice president, VDR. “The analysis also proves once again the importance of business travel for Germany as a business location.”

The research does highlight some positive changing trends. While SME business travel was trending to shorter trips up to 2019 – day trips made up 70% in this size class – the reduced number of trips recorded in 2020 were longer in duration. There was also more travel from SMEs, accounting for three quarters of the overnight stays in 2020, up from around a 50% share pre-pandemic.

There is also a clear support for further industry digitalisation and – as would be expected – a greater focus on hygiene. Almost all surveyed German companies (96%) see digital process optimisation – which was important even before the pandemic – strengthened as we recover from the pandemic. A similarly high number (94%) agree with the statement that hygiene concepts will continue to be important when travelling.

The threat to business travel levels in Germany remains from video conferencing platforms which have become part of everyday life, while further modal substitution for domestic travel will support the sustainability agenda. The VDR survey suggests that almost nine in ten German businesses (87%) will reduce levels of business travel, while around three-quarters (73%) have already switched from air to rail for business travel and a further 13% are planning to do so in the future.

We continue to ‘guess’ the likely loss of business travel due to technology substitution and changing business travel policy and habits. VDR’s research highlights that the added value of a business trip will clearly be examined even more closely in the future. A high majority of the larger 80% and smaller companies (72%) as well as four in five (81%) of the interviewees from the public sector said they expect a permanent reduction in business travel.

How big this reduction will be remains to be seen, but forecasts seem to suggest that this will average around 30%, albeit in many geographical and industry areas that figure could be much higher (or lower).

“In the future it will not be possible to completely replace face-to-face encounters with video conferences. Rather, it will depend on finding alternatives that are sensitive to the situation,” said VDR’s Ms Piner. For necessary trips, “there will be a greater planning effort,” especially in the transition phase to the ‘post-pandemic period’, while employers will deal “even more intensively with the question of how they can best support their travellers, ”she added.

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