In 2019, Jason Henrichs took 46 flights for business, traveling to cities where he stayed at hotels, dined at local restaurants, and sometimes even visited tourist attractions like the Liberty Bell.
In 2020, he took just three flights.
The traveling life has its perks—Henrichs, the CEO of Alloy Labs, a consortium of community banks, has Executive Platinum status on American Airlines, Gold Elite status at Marriott, and membership in not one but three private airport lounges. He has 350,000 miles, which he can use to fly his whole family across the world for free.
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But forced to stay at home during the pandemic, Henrichs got a taste of a life where he sees his family more, and is just as effective at work. He’s even been able to convince banking colleagues who have long been averse to giving up in-person meetings to move online. The talks he once flew across the country to deliver to boards of directors are more frequently streamed online now, and so are the meetings that would have lasted in a bank over 2 or 3 days but now are spread out over short Microsoft Teams huddles over 2 or 3 weeks. And lo and behold, he and his colleagues are getting more done.
“This isn’t about just reducing expense. This is about increasing effectiveness,” says Henrichs, who says he’ll likely travel once a month, rather than once a week, after the pandemic.
Tens of thousands of road warriors like Henrichs—and their employers—are coming to a similar conclusion, which is going to cause a reckoning for the already-battered leisure and hospitality sector. U.S. companies’ travel budgets declined by 90% or more in 2020, according to Deloitte Insights. Even if the pandemic ebbs, companies looking to become more environmentally sustainable won’t likely go back to the same volume of travel as before; corporations like Zurich Insurance Group AG, Bain & Company, and S&P Global have announced plans to cut business travel emissions in the next few years, with Zurich aiming to reduce emissions by as much as 70% by next year.
This could mean big losses for airlines, hotels, rental car companies, and other industries catering to corporate travelers. Business travelers make up 12% of airline passengers but 75% of revenues on certain flights. They brought in steady revenue to hotels when they attended conferences and events and then stayed a few extra days to vacation with their families.
Some executives predict that business travel will return to 85% of pre-pandemic levels, says Lindsey Roeschke, managing director for travel and hospitality analysis at Morning Consult. She considers that an optimistic take. “Even if I’m wrong, and we do see a return to those levels,” she says, “that’s still a massive loss for the industry as a whole.”
The hospitality industry is feeling it. During the pandemic, rental car companies like Hertz, hotels like the Fairmont in San Jose, and international airlines including Aeromexico, Virgin Atlantic, and LATAM all filed for bankruptcy protection. Government supports that kept the U.S. airline industry afloat ended September 30. The hotel industry is expected to earn $59 billion less in business travel revenue this year compared to 2019, according to the American Hotel and Lobby Association. Airlines are expected to lose $51.8 billion in 2021 alone.