Is this the end of the road for business travel?

Consolations of the lone business treveller. golden_toque, CC BY

Is this the end of the road for business travel?

Consolations of the lone business treveller. golden_toque, CC BY

The world’s airport business lounges might be even more peaceful and relaxing this year as companies decide to rein in spending on travel. Budgets have been squeezed by airline and hotel pricing trends, internal cost cuts, compliance considerations and traveller safety concerns. Factor in the rise of virtual meeting technology and the trick for the business travel industry leaders will be to work out where the market now lies.

It isn’t all doom and gloom for them. There are signs of an early revival, supported by research. But it is clear that there are more and more compelling cases not to fly. Security is an increasing worry and we now have seamless and genuinely innovative ways of meeting without leaving our office or home.

One report claims video conferencing could save US and UK firms a total of $19 billion as well as reducing CO2 emissions by 5.5m tonnes. Business travel risks falling into terminal decline.

Zero cost

A study by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) reported in September that an increasing number of businesses are going wireless. It claimed that about 55% of businesses in the US encourage employees to bring their own device to work and more than two thirds are investing in a mobile strategy for their workers.

Then there are low and even zero cost solutions such as hanging out on Google or meeting on Skype, all the way up to pricey, full-blown telepresence products. The reasons to fly or take a train (which, in the UK can cost significantly more than flying), become harder to justify.

You had to be there. Jeff Hester, CC BY

If you were in an office ten years ago making an early stab at laggy, grainy video conferencing, you would be blown away by more recent innovations. Virtual meetings can now deliver stunning realism. This is known as telepresencing

The people around the table see and hear other with impressive clarity, audio quality and the ability to invoke documents and images that can be shared and changed in real time. Access to expertise without needing to travel can potentially provide benefits in terms of faster and more responsive decision making, and also offer benefits to the public at large, for example in healthcare.

In the Flesh

Perhaps surprisingly, some airports have been the first to exploit the technology, seeing the rise of virtual meeting as an opportunity as well as a risk. Gatwick Airport recently started offering virtual meeting facilities at its airport, allowing a video meeting before flying to a physical one. Maybe the future won’t be a case of either-or.

The importance of the physical, face to face meeting is still firmly rooted in the symbolic expectations of human beings. The recent gathering in Paris of world leaders and the powerful image of prime ministers and presidents linking arms in solidarity over terrorist shootings makes the point well. This would not have had the same impact had they linked arms on Twitter or via video link.

Hollande and Merkel join rally to mark the murders in Paris. Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Decades ago Timothy Leary suggested that, in the future, physical meetings would become increasingly “sacred”. In her book, Meeting in the Global Workplace: Air Travel, Telepresence and the Body, Yolande Strengers states:

Telepresence facilitates distinctly different practices of meeting and collaborating to those enabled by face-to-face encounters.

We sometimes do need to meet “in the flesh”, according to her research. She goes on to claim:

During in-person meetings the body’s physical presence conveys meanings of respect and value, provides sensorial competency and gestures, and enables physical mobility as it carries people between and within different material environments.

Virtually there

We’ll have to see if further innovations in virtual “presencing”, and the development of holographic projection will render the need for physical presence irrelevant. At present people are still flying in large numbers to socially important, high risk, even “sacred” meetings. But the days of flying as a default may well be numbered anyway.

Face to face meeting. svenwerk, CC BY-ND

Security concerns over travel are currently high and increasing, and it is hard to imagine a u-turn in that trend. There has also been a post-banking crisis focus on greater transparency and scrutiny of expenses and perks in business. Together, these issues alone mean the business travel sector will have to re-imagine itself.

The airport of the future may become as much a place for virtual communication as it is for physical transportation. The train station (and even the train) may become (as it already is for some), a smart way to meet virtually while travelling to a physical meeting. Two meetings for the price of one, and no precious work time wasted.

Research in this realm is very hard to find. We haven’t yet evolved a firm decision-making process which guides us when and when not to fly; when to opt for virtual over physical, or vice versa. There are though some anecdotal clues.

We meet in the digital space to share information; when companies are discussing strategic documents, product designs, progressing projects. Where business risk is higher and the need for social connection is strong, we still meet in the flesh: winning a contract, forming a partnership, agreeing high level strategy.

However, as the technology evolves and refines, even those latter reasons to fly and meet, are coming under pressure. Larger companies such as Cisco and Microsoft claim savings in the hundreds of millions, even if smaller businesses are slower to adopt.

Clearly, business travel is going to change significantly and the signs are that the virtual meeting is going to render more hotel rooms and business class seats empty. This represents both a threat and an opportunity to the business travel industry: a threat if they rely on traditional cycles of boom and bust pricing, but also an opportunity to home in the power of that “sacred” physical meeting – perhaps while enabling travellers to frolic in the latest virtual space on their way there.