Travel buyers are confident that client facing meetings would not be replaced permanently by virtual alternatives, but travellers’ preferences will change compared to pre-pandemic

We continue to consider how the travel and tourism industry will look in the future with an air of confusion as studies deliver mixed messages. In our ‘charting the trends’ article this week we highlighted expert commentary from the Institute of Travel Management (ITM) Revive virtual conference that indicated that videoconferencing could permanently eradicate the need for half of domestic business and almost two-thirds of international travel in the short- to medium-term.

Further research from the same event, this time directly from ITM, paints a more positive picture with the majority of respondents (71%) to its own corporate travel buyers survey stating that client facing meetings would not be replaced permanently by virtual alternatives. In fact, one in four of ITM’s researched travel buyers said that in-person client meetings will never be replaced by virtual meetings.

However, the responses from 120+ travel buyer members from the beginning of Apr-2021 to a survey designed to establish travel programming priorities for 2021 and beyond, and presented at the Revive conference show, that we should not be looking at a return to normal any longer and that it is not the appropriate measurement metric.

Almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the return of travel to pre-pandemic levels “is not desirable,” reports ITM. This was echoed by respondents’ expectations of when their company’s business travel will reach at least 25% of pre-pandemic levels: around a quarter of buyers anticipate travel will scale up in 3Q 2021, whilst 41% foresee this volume returning in 4Q 2021. The greatest enablers to a return to business travel in order of priority will be vaccination programmes, COVID-19 testing and traveller confidence, according to the travel buyer members of ITM.

The survey’s findings also reveal how travel buyer roles and responsibilities have pivoted and evolved over the past year in the wake of COVID-19. Additional areas that now fall within buyers’ remits include new reporting requirements (such as CO2), traveller health and lifestyle expectations, and sustainability measures.

Fewer buyers (36%) now feel increased pressure to justify the travel function within their organisation compared with a year ago (47%). In fact, more than three in five (62%) felt that the perceived internal value of their role and remit will increase in 2021, compared to just under half (47%) this time last year. Three in five (60%) also identify that the importance of diversity and inclusion will increase in 2021, compared with just over a third (35%) last year.

Meanwhile, with international travel once again on the horizon, metasearch engine and travel agency Skyscanner have looked at how, when and where it is likely to return ahead of the peak travel season. Its analysis reveals how travellers’ preferences are changing compared to pre-pandemic as it identifies eight global trends that offer a snapshot of today’s travel landscape that will influence the sector in 2021.

In the publication, CAPA – Centre for Aviation managing director, Derek Sadubin, notes leisure traffic and VFR, the low yielding segments for airlines will dominate travel profiles for the remainder of 2021 and beyond. “Fewer business travellers, the key to long-haul full-service operations, will take longer to take to the skies, so the leisure/VFR markets, particularly domestic and short-haul international, will be in the ascendency. For the airlines in this environment, low costs are king, so LCCs are well positioned,” he said.

The paper, ‘Skyscanner Horizons – The Return of Travel’, analyses three years of search and booking data to shine a light on how travellers are planning for the new normal ahead of the peak holiday season. It shows the emergence of new travel behaviours.

“Increasing traveller optimism, aligned with progress on vaccinations and the first stages of new travel protocols being introduced, is leading to changes in trip planning and price sensitivity, as well as interest in new routes and destinations from June onwards,” it says.

Most notably, the report shows that trip planning is rising alongside confidence levels and average booking horizons are nearing those of 2019, tracking at 75 days in a sign that travellers are confident they can actually get away this year. The data shows that average trip duration is up too, particularly for trips longer than 7 and 20 days and more than half (55%) of consumers are planning a holiday within the next six months.

But, the data also illustrates that travellers are hedging their bets for year-end trips. Travel dates are being pushed back to later in the year with September, October and November comparatively more popular than two years ago. Searches for medium-haul flights are also higher (+11%) compared to 2019, while more than a third (39%) of consumers are planning trips for longer than 14 days, with extended holidays (56%) and visiting friends and family (52%) the top reasons.

The research also sees clear skies ahead for domestic air travel; a rise of the second city as smaller destinations become more popular; that select destinations have been leading the charge to attract travellers; that determined travellers – from couples to families – are searching for new destinations; prices are cheaper and travellers are spending less; and it is no longer just about the cheapest ticket – it’s about value for money – are further trends.

On the latter, via Skyscanner platforms alone, as highlighted in the chart above, “travellers are now selecting tickets 28% more expensive than the cheapest on offer, up 12% versus 2019, suggesting that other factors alongside price, such as flight duration, number of stops and COVID-19 safety, are increasing in importance,” according to the metasearch specialist.

Its own survey responses indicate that convenient flight times (41%), fewer stops or direct routes (38%), if departure is from their preferred airport (35%), airline safety rating (27%), or flying with a specific airline (26%) would drive them to pay for a more expensive flight.

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