Trips halted as companies focus on online meetings
For the past three decades, Edward Tse, founder and CEO of management consultancy Gao Feng Advisory, has flown from Hong Kong, where he lives, to visit clients on the Chinese mainland and overseas.
However, the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to his routine.
The contagion has largely halted global business travel, with people's movements restricted, borders closed and quarantine rules put in place to contain the disease, which continues to take its toll across the world.
Tse said: "My business travel has been halted since January due to the coronavirus, which has profoundly changed my way of work, as I now have to conduct much of it through online platforms, including giving speeches."
Frequent business travelers have seen important engagements switched to online video communication platforms. As their frequent-flyer cards gather dust, they have had to learn how to communicate with colleagues and clients across the world without meeting face-to-face.
Sara Jane Ho, who comes from Hong Kong and founded Institute Sarita, an etiquette finishing school, said instruction at the establishment, which usually requires face-to-face guidance, was affected by the pandemic in the first half of the year. However, short-term uncertainty led her to discover long-term opportunities, including setting up an online lifestyle products shop.
Ho, also the founder of the lifestyle, media and merchandising company Miss Wonder Omnimedia, said: "With COVID-19 under control in China, we opened classes again in the second half of this year. Many friends who were forced to make adjustments as a result of the outbreak have emerged stronger and have found new business opportunities."
Before the pandemic emerged, Ho took flights every two weeks, but now she only travels between Hong Kong and Shanghai once every three months.
"Flying less has made me more productive, as I stay in both cities longer and get meaningful work done," she said, adding that as she is now starting her third 14-day quarantine period, this has become a "new normal" and an opportunity to be productive.
Clayton Hazvinei Vhumbunu, a technical officer with the Faculty of Humanities at Rhodes University in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa, said that with business travel affected by COVID-19 restrictions and border closures, there has been a clear impact on economic development.
The aviation, airline, tourism and hospitality industries have been significantly affected by the changes in business travel, he said, adding that nearly all global destinations experienced travel restrictions in the second quarter of this year.
Last month, a United Nations report said 120 million jobs are at risk in the tourism and hospitality industries, with the economic cost expected to exceed $1 trillion.
The World Tourism Organization, a UN agency, has reported that international tourism revenue will fall by between $910 billion and $1.2 trillion, depending on when travel restrictions are lifted, and that this will set the global tourism industry back by 20 years.
Vhumbunu said, "The aviation and tourism value chains have been affected by COVID-19. As tourism contributes about 10 percent of global GDP, the impact of the disease on economic development is massive."
Many airlines have been affected by the closure of international airports. Carriers that have continued to fly have reduced the number of services, with many planes grounded and passenger capacity reduced. Airport revenues have also been affected.
The International Air Transport Association reported that due to the pandemic, airlines' global debt could reach $550 billion by December, adding that on average every day this year $230 million will be added to the industry's losses, which will amount to $84.3 billion in 2020 alone.
However, Vhumbunu said most African countries are now reopening, with South Africa, where he lives, resuming international travel on Oct 1.
"Although few people across the world are making business trips now, especially international travel, as they are still skeptical and cautious about their safety, over time, especially from January, there is likely to be an increase in air traffic as business travelers embrace the new normal," he said.
Xu Xiaolei, chief brand officer for China Youth Travel Service, said he and his colleagues halted business trips at the start of this year, but resumed them in May. However, they are keeping such travel to a minimum due to the coronavirus. While the prospects for a resumption of overseas business travel remain bleak, such trips domestically have returned to 70 percent to 80 percent of the levels seen before the pandemic.
By the end of last month, China Youth Travel Service's business travel and conference revenue had fallen by at least 50 percent compared with the same time last year, Xu said.
Reduced public movement will clearly have a severe impact on economic development, as the global economy is in recession due to lockdowns, he added.
With global travel halted, Xu said the company has shifted its focus to providing domestic business travel and online business conference services. In the first nine months of this year, its online business conference revenue rose sixfold year-onyear, he said.
Jon Geldart, director-general of the United Kingdom Institute of Directors, which represents more than 25,000 business leaders in the UK, also traveled extensively before COVID-19 emerged, but has since stopped making such trips and rarely travels for pleasure.
"We quickly moved all our staff and business online at the beginning of the pandemic. Although we have suffered a dramatic drop in income from our events, we have been able to change our business model quickly to survive," he said.
He added that online platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet have enabled the institute to remain in close contact with its business connections, as such links are based on established relationships.
"However, developing relationships with new contacts is very difficult. Nothing can replace human interaction and the understanding you get from personal contact," Geldart said.
He added that the enforced reduction in business travel worries him, as it will potentially reduce the ability to develop trust.
"This essential and basic human need is being forced out of our interactions to the detriment of business and personal relations," he added.
Geldart said everyone is now anxious about traveling, both domestically and overseas. There is a greater worry about traveling abroad, mainly due to the need to undergo quarantine, and the disruption this causes business. He predicts that there will be an increased focus on domestic business in the short term.
Jason Yu, general manager of consultancy Kantar Worldpanel China, said that before the onset of the pandemic, he usually traveled within Asia or elsewhere in the world once or twice each quarter, but this year he has hardly made any trips.
"The halting of business travel has had no immediate impact on the company, as we mainly focus on clients in China. However, there has been some impact on foreign clients investing in China, as we have received fewer visits from them," he said.
Yu said that although online video conference platforms help people in different places gather for discussions with "clear and simple targets", it is still difficult to achieve a deep level of communication or make participants feel more engaged with a team.
Moreover, although digital platforms can help companies with remote communication among clients they know well, it is difficult for businesses to develop new clients or build trust with those they are still unfamiliar with.
Tse, from Gao Feng Advisory, said that although going digital can be more efficient, as it reduces the need for business trips, in-person meetings are still important for creating bonds.
"Seeing clients and colleagues in person makes a difference, especially when building relationships. For example, if I attend an offline conference, I meet many old and new friends and talk with them, which I cannot do through online meetings."
Tse said that as his management consultancy work requires him to meet with clients in person and help them solve problems, after the pandemic, he will continue to attach great importance to business travel.
But he said he is unlikely to make as many trips as previously, as more people will be willing to embrace digital technology to reduce the number of unnecessary meetings.
He added that as the pandemic worsens globally, cross-border travel and flights will continue to stagnate, but people should remain patient and wait for vaccines to be developed before they can travel safely. As China has the virus under control, he looks forward to travel to the mainland resuming soon.
Vhumbunu, from Rhodes University, said the advantage of online platforms is that they are convenient, cheaper and can reach a wider audience.
However, virtual meetings cannot produce the pre-pandemic traditional networking that took place during meal breaks at conferences and during field trips after such gatherings.
"Miscommunication is also common when using online platforms. There was an instance last month in a webinar I took part in when a presenter finished his 30-minute delivery by unknowingly speaking into a muted microphone," Vhumbunu said.