Business travel down: Survey

But employees believe face-to-face still most effective approach
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/03/2016

CANADIAN WORKERS aren’t logging the same number of miles they used to, according to a recent survey.

Employees took an average of 8.95 business trips in the last year compared to 13.36 the previous year, according to a survey by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) Foundation and American Express.

But is that a reflection of a stalled economy, advances in technology or employee preferences? It could be a mixture of all three but, either way, travellers still say meeting face-to-face has the greatest impact.

Because of the stagnant economy, mainly due to oil prices, business travel is in a low-key phase, according to GBTA vice-president of research Jeanne Liu in Clifton, Virg.

“Business travel spending and costs, when companies are going into more cautious mode, or looking at their spending, it’s usually one of the first things they cut or reduce,” she said.

“It’s easier for them to do that than to lay people off or make other drastic changes in their business.”

The Conference Board of Canada is forecasting domestic business travel volume nationally will grow in the 2.5 per cent range for 2017 and in the low two per cent range the following year, said Greg Hermus, associate director.

“It’s a modest story.”

For individual companies, growth is heavily tied to profits, he said.

“The pool of funding that supports business travel has still been quite constrained,” said Hermus. “Companies are still pretty tight.”

However, two-thirds (67 per cent) of Canadian business travellers believe management considers business travel to be very important for their company’s financial performance, found the GBTA-Amex survey of 3,500 business travellers from Canada, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, the United Kingdom and United States.

And a majority (81 per cent) of travellers said they meet their business goals when travelling. But broken down by age, those aged 55 and over are more successful (83 per cent) in meeting all their business goals when travelling than millennials aged 18 to 34 (70 per cent).

That’s because older travellers are more experienced and tend to be able to get all goals accomplished, according to Atalia Dasilva, vice-president of international public affairs at American Express in London, U.K.

“Because they set objectives, it’s just experience,” she said.

“One of the tips is to set measurable objectives for the trip and that’s what the older travellers are doing, whereas the millennial is a little bit newer to the game.”

Many millenials will use business travel as a means to spend more time exploring the city after the goals of the trip are out of the way, benefiting because airfare is paid for by the employer, said Liu.

“They really want to take advantage of this opportunity to travel.”

Face-to-face important

A majoriy (68 per cent) of Canadian business travellers believe technology can never replace meeting with people face-to-face in order to conduct business. This breaks down to 79 per cent for older workers and 52 per cent for millennials.

Despite how easy it is to connect virtually, face-to-face meetings are of paramount importance, said Paul Roman, vice-president and general manager of global commercial payments at American Express Canada in Toronto.

“Technology is advantageous in many ways, but in-person meetings foster strong personal relationships that are difficult to form otherwise.”

Face-to-face meetings are also crucial to globalization, especially in meeting with business leaders in a country such as China which offers a completely different way of life from that of the West, said Dasilva.

“I cannot imagine the first or second or third meeting (done virtually). Companies will want to go to China to have those meetings because it is such a different culture.”

Virtual may be the wave of the future, but not anytime soon, said Liu.

“Only when there is some sort of cost restraint do businesses go to virtual meetings, not in-person. I think virtual has a role, but I do not see face-to-face meetings going away.”

Relying on technology is more appropriate when everybody at a meeting knows everybody else, such as internal meetings or among remote workers, said Hermus.

“If you are very familiar with the group, that’s the (situation) most prone to have technology replace the physical meeting.”

The trend seems to be moving toward more travel, not less, according to Dasilva.

Around 10 years ago, companies were first seeing the rise of virtual meetings but “now we are almost seeing a reversal of that,” she said.

“I think we are set for increased business travel as we increasingly trade with other countries.”

But more modest growth should be expected, said Liu.

“I don’t see it dropping, I do see steady, moderate growth (and) after the elections are over in the U.S., we will have a little more sense of what’s in store for the near future and that will have an impact on travel, definitely.”

Challenges for travellers, HR

Four-in-five (81 per cent) Canadian business travellers are satisfied with their overall business travel experience, which is above the average satisfaction rate of those surveyed around the globe (73 per cent).

However, airport security checks have become a major hassle for many travellers, according to the survey. For Canadian travellers, the rate of security satisfaction dropped from 100 in 2015 to 94.7 for 2016.

“One of the biggest dissatisfiers for travellers is obviously the security check-in at the airport,” said Dasilva.

“(But) there’s a paradox because obviously security is important. Everyone wants to feel safe while they are on the road. That’s why travel policies are important. It’s important that the company provides a very holistic travel policy for their employees,” she said.

And once a worker arrives safely at an airport or hotel, the issue of connectivity is a problem. Seventy-seven per cent of respondents said wi-fi access is critical to work productivity while travelling and hotel rooms provide much greater wi-fi reliability for travellers over what is experienced in airports — 84 per cent are satisfied with hotel wi-fi access, versus 50 per cent on airplanes.

But logging in to the office can offer challenges to workers as well.

“That’s a major dissatisfier for the travellers in this survey, the fact that when they are travelling, they find it hard to log on,” said Dasilva.

“Often, it’s because their own work system makes it very difficult because of the security settings.”

And when it comes to expense management, technology also has an effect on satisfaction.

“A lot of Canadian businesses report having to manually fill in their expense reports which can obviously be very time-consuming and cumbersome, a process often taking maybe two hours out of your working week,” said Dasilva.

Overall, business travellers are using electronic ways to submit expenses, but in Canada the uptick remains slow.

“When companies put in ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, they tend to do the headquarters first and eventually it’s a gradual rollout but as the world becomes more technical, there’s a greater expectation that these things are going to become more available,” said Dasilva.

Submitting expense forms created the third-highest level of anxiety for business travellers at 17 per cent, behind lack of access to wi-fi (25 per cent) and getting from one place to another (19 per cent).

In addition to expense submitting, communication of corporate travel policies also contributed to a level of distaste. But communication goes both ways, said Dasilva.

“If we were to survey to see how many people have actually read their policy, it would probably be in the 50 percentile number, she said.

“Sometimes, people think their company’s policies are punitive and actually they’re not.”

More forward-thinking companies ensure that business travellers face very little barriers from head office when travelling abroad, said Dasilva.

 “If a company is quite open in its communication about why the travel policy is important, what it is there to achieve, how travel is important, the overall success of the organization is, I think people buy into it more.”

It’s clear that Canadians view business travel as essential to their overall performance, said Roman.

“But with increasing costs of doing business, companies should make sure they have a solid business travel policy in place to manage spending and ensure they are getting the most value out of their business travel.”

Sharing economy

The sharing economy also plays into business travel satisfaction. Services such as Uber and Lyft are permitted by 51 per cent of employers, while 34 per cent of companies permit travellers to use home-sharing services such as Airbnb, found the Amex-GBTA survey. Millennials are more interested in using these types of services over the older group.

The use of sharing economy businesses are “slowly being accepted” by corporate travel planners, said Hermus.

The conference board, in a joint survey with the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, found Uber had the highest acceptance rate, at 50 per cent, of businesses that allowed claims for reimbursement. Airbnb had a 21 per cent acceptance rate.

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