AmEx GBT’s David Reimer tells us business travel isn’t dead, it’s crucial to company culture
When COVID shut down travel deemed “nonessential,” closed almost all national borders, and even had several states requiring lengthy quarantines, well, there wasn’t a whole lot of business travel going on. With everyone getting accustomed to virtual meeting software, many thought it spelled the end of business travel. Companies would see a large line item they could eliminate, and that would be that.
But then we all got a little bit sick of virtual meetings, burned out from the stress and uncertainty of two years of pandemic, and started looking for better opportunities by the millions. To some extent, those prognostications were right. The old motivations for business travel have largely disappeared, though with some big exceptions. They’ve been replaced, however, by new factors that reflect a changed reality.
In a white paper, American Express Global Business Travel and Cultique lay out the changes and explore “Why Business Travel is the Center of the New Company Culture.” David Reimer, EVP and General Manager at Amex GBT, sat with BOSS to discuss why business travel is making a big comeback and why companies that don’t embrace it will have a difficult recovery.
We’ve all seen the negative effects extended periods of isolation can have, and on the flip side, how powerful human connection can be. All that demand for travel that has been pent-up for two years is releasing. More than two thirds of 450 companies Amex GBT surveyed have restarted domestic business travel, while less than a third have restarted international trips. If and when the U.S. does away with the testing requirement for travelers returning to the States from abroad, international travel will only increase.
“Nothing builds cultural understanding better than travel,” Reimer said. “Being able to look someone in the eyes and respond to what they’re saying, there’s no bigger way of being able to do that than being in person.”
That goes for building client relationships and for making new hires comfortable in their roles. It’s much easier for people to focus their attention and go beyond surface level interaction in person than through a screen while both parties have other things going on in the background.
“If you were a graduate that was hired during COVID, how do you actually touch and feel the culture of the place that you’ve joined? How do you have the connections to work out how to get something done or how to interpret something? You don’t get any of that without bonding, meeting people, aligning, and collaborating.”
Teams might be spread out across the country, with some people in the office, some fully remote, and some doing a hybrid model. The need for connection is greater than ever. Senior leaders have discovered new opportunities and realized where they need greater focus by going out on the road and meeting with their employees. It’s brought a clarity that has been sorely lacking the last two years, Reimer said. For employees, visiting the home office brings an appreciation of why they work where they do.
“The first time that a sales pitch is done on Zoom and they lose the deal because some place stood up in person, the gates are open at that organization,” Reimer said, “and that will happen.”
If nothing else prompts companies to bring back business travel, that fear of missing out will. The bet that saving on travel costs will have a positive impact on the bottom line in the long run is a losing one, he says. Internal culture and customer relationships will erode in the absence of face-to-face contact.
“We’re at a pivotal moment where companies need to think different, think strategically. … Short-sighted decisions have long-term implications. Now’s the opportunity to lead, to get back on the road.”
They won’t just be missing out on new business, they’ll be missing out on talent in a more competitive hiring landscape and risk turning off current employees. Already, jobseekers are asking companies what their travel policies are. With the blurring of professional and personal life widespread working from home has brought, employees are more concerned about rewarding experiences, work-life balance, and well-being.
“Travel is really the glue that starts to be a solution for that,” Reimer said. “Travel is really a strategic enabler of company culture, vision, and strategy than it’s ever been.”
Some Work & Some Play
With a large segment of the workforce placing more value on experiences than things, an organization that offers travel opportunities has a competitive advantage in a post-pandemic atmosphere. Offering innovative perks to complement their business travel will help keep employees happy. Things like upgrades to first-class flights, nicer hotels, or a spending allowance to bring a loved one along can engender a lot of goodwill. The AmEx GBT survey found that 82% of companies think their employees would welcome the opportunity to extend work trips to include a leisure component.
“That’s where we came up with this concept of a chief journey officer,” Reimer said. “That’s really a metaphor and an opportunity for elevating that role of a travel manager and making sure they’ve got a voice at the table, explaining, ‘Here’s different ways we can build our culture. Here’s ways we should think about travel policy and add perks for well-being.'”
While few organizations will literally add a chief journey officer to their C-suite — though some startups and more progressive companies will do just that — the role of the travel manager is no longer just about making sure the plane tickets are booked. They have a part to play in driving company strategy, culture, and values.
Reimer cites Salesforce’s Trailblazer Ranch company retreat — complete with guided nature walks, yoga, cooking classes, and scores of other ways to unwind — as an example for organizations to put travel at the center of company culture.
“They might knock on doors they’ve never knocked on before and know that travel’s a solution to many company problems.”
Coming Back Different
Business travel has been an outlier when it comes to company culture, but now it’s the touchpoint for remote workers and dispersed teams. Everyone in the office five days a week is no longer the baseline experience. While more than half of the companies surveyed expect most employees will be required in the office at least part-time, that leaves a lot who don’t, and plenty that find off-sites a better use of money than large office spaces that may sit largely empty.
“All teams and companies are re-energized by the opportunity to get together,” Reimer said. “It’s a great way to get things moving again, to get economies going. This is the spark for employee motivation and engagement.”
Global business travel spending is now expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels by 2024, and airlines are optimistic given the surge they’ve seen this year.
“Travel will come back faster. Travel will not go away. It’s going to come back in a different way,” he said. “Companies need to think about how they meet, and when they get people together, what’s the experience that they want to bring to employees beyond just the business content. How are you taking the time out to allow them to connect to talk about the company, the customers, more about who they work with? It’s never been more important.”
Business travel as a way to get from Point A to Point B might be gone. Now it’s a way to keep the organization connected.