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Learning to live with the reality of less business travel

Digitization goes beyond moving physical meetings onto Zoom or remodeling in-person conferences behind screens. Yet, until a statistically significant proportion of the world's population is vaccinated, we will continue to see muted in-person meetings and conference activity.

In this article, I will explore how the airline industry has been affected, and so too the landscape of conferences; how individuals can look to network virtually, and how early digital transformation and an agile approach can be a company's best shot at surviving, and thriving, through the pandemic.

Airline responses

To understand the context of the situation, we need to look to the airlines - specifically, what their CEOs are saying. Delta CEO Ed Bastian has said: "It's not as if there's going to be a green light that goes off and we're all back traveling internationally." It is a reminder that although a semblance of normality has returned to some sectors, we are still a way off returning to business as usual when it comes to flight.

This is a sentiment echoed by United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby: "Demand for corporate flights should start to recover by late 2021 or early 2022 but won't get fully back to normal for another four years." So, we know what not to expect -  what can we anticipate to see in the future?

The future of air travel

Some companies are examining the idea of reducing their business travel when it makes a return, sending fewer bodies on business trips. The Air Current's Courtney Miller muses: "Maybe instead of sending 10 people to each meeting via air travel you send the two sales executives and keep the support staff on Zoom."

It makes sense - one of the biggest lessons to take away from the pandemic is employees' resilience and ability to work remotely - and to work well while doing it. Remote working is undoubtedly here to stay, as technology giants like Twitter announced back in May 2020 that it would be their employee's choice whether they worked from the office or home. Since then, many companies followed suit, from Google, Microsoft, and Slack.

Working remotely has apparent repercussions for the travel industry, with little to no need to use the Metro or taxis to travel for work - let alone airplanes. Yet, rather than throwing in the towel at the height of this change in consumer habit, Miller stays strong in her beliefs. She explains, "The fax machine was supposed to kill the express business. But couriers like FedEx survived and even flourished — they lost high-yield business, but the overall growth trends were in their favor." And she is expecting something similar to happen to the aviation industry. "Traffic will come back — but it will be different."

What might a loss in face-to-face interaction spell?

Presenting, pitching, or interviewing via video call has an entirely different feel to in-person interactions. A primary concern for businesses is a perceived loss of sales due to their physical distance during pitches. They perhaps miss out on vital body language, which is only perceptible in face-to-face instances.

United Airlines CEO, Scott Kirby, does little in the way of easing this worry. He has been said to repeat a mantra during the pandemic: "I've been fond of saying the first time someone loses a sale to a competitor who showed up in person is the last time they try to make a sales call on Zoom."

In a scientific field at least, this hypothesis rings true, as The Scientist reports in an interview with Maria Roche, a knowledge production and innovation student at Harvard Business School: "colocation—even temporary colocation at an in-person conference—can have an effect on the rate and quality of scientific collaborations. "Especially for innovators, being physically close at some point is, as far as the research indicates, pretty important."

United's CEO finishes, saying: "When a widely available vaccine finally arrives, business trips won't merely serve to create more personal contact with clients and partners. They'll be rewards for employees who spent so many hours of their lives stuck on Zoom" - something which I think we can all agree with after months of being cooped up in our home offices or at our kitchen tables.

For now, the future of conferences lies in digitization

One thing we can be sure of in the short-term is that our conferences, pitches, and holiday gatherings will continue in a digital format.

This has not just served as a happy work-around; The Statesman reported that many skilled job seekers were employed to make webinars more interactive and engaging: "As demos for companies' products and services, videos, and graphics need to be created and shared online, this gave a wider way to more digital marketing opportunities, which has further employed many in-market professionals."

There are clear positives to digitizing some face-to-face conventions. Conferences no longer need to eat away at hours spent traveling to different states or increased spending while not at home. Connecting with further afield countries is similarly eased, and you can now 'attend' a conference in China one day and Australia the next, without a hint of jet lag.

Moreover, we have found that we can communicate effectively with contacts we have already made - and in some cases, relationships with long-standing customers and partners have improved down to an increase in communication. I believe that herd immunization will likely take 8-18 months, which will drive confidence for in-person meetings and conferences, but for now, we must embrace digital networking counterparts.

For me, the return to conferences and in-person interaction will be welcome, but in the 18-24 month interim, individuals need to amplify their offerings in the digital arena. We're seeing how thought leadership educates the marketplace and how true value lies within areas of expertise. Developing credibility with new clients virtually is difficult, especially amid a more crowded field, so learning to pivot and position your leadership in a digital format is an imperative takeaway from the pandemic.

Companies not already on the digital transformation drive may find it hard to get acquainted with new practices at break-neck speed. For those seeking industry support and expert guidance, Loqate's Partner Program can help companies accelerate their transition to digital while still providing an excellent customer experience. Find out more about our Global Partner Program, here.

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