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Business Travel Lives Again, as Many Are Hitting the Road

Business travelers are hitting the road again.

After Covid-19’s Omicron wave suppressed travel volumes in January, transactions are up significantly over the past nine weeks, according to SAP Concur, a travel and expense software provider. Small and medium-size companies are driving much of the acceleration, analysts say.

The increase is driven by a host of factors. Workers are returning to offices, restrictions are dropping domestically and internationally, and clients who once steered away from in-person meetings are once again comfortable with face-to-face get-togethers.

The return is a boon for conference centers, airlines and hotels, which have reported a jump in bookings related to business travelers. In one example of the shift, travel and expense-management company Campbell Travel said that 67% of its business in March was related to corporate travel, up from 51% in January. For workers, returning to the road is a chance to close deals that are best done in person and reconnect with colleagues and clients.

“If you can’t get in front of your customer, it’s going to be very difficult to move forward with them,” says Mark Sienko, a senior product manager at ElringKlinger. Mr. Sienko recently traveled to France on his first business trip since the onset of the pandemic and says the trip was productive.

Still, like many others, Mr. Sienko says it is unlikely his business travel will return to where it was before Covid-19. International travel restrictions and a lack of workers in the office continue to stifle some demand for many, and business travel remains well below 2019 levels.

But some travelers have been back on the road for a long time. Moreover, the amount of travel has been picking up steadily since January with the threat of new cases from the BA.2 subvariant so far not deterring many business travelers and companies that started returning to the road this year.

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Aside from standard business travel, other factors are also helping drive increased movement. For one, conferences that haven’t taken place with in-person attendees for two years are back on, like the World Economic Forum in Davos, which was moved to May, and South by Southwest, which took place earlier this month. Moreover, the many workers who have now gone remote are going to have to return to the office occasionally for meetings, according to a recent letter from American Express’s chief executive. The sentiment has been repeated by other workers and managers.

Among small businesses surveyed regularly by the Census Bureau, the share saying they expected to spend on business travel over the next six months rose to 36.3% in mid-March from 33.7% in late December. About 32% of businesses surveyed say they don’t have business travel expenses.

Airlines are among the groups reporting improved corporate bookings.

Delta Air Lines ‘ large corporate contracted travel business, primarily Fortune 500 companies, is about 65% of what it was compared with 2019. Travel for small and medium enterprises is about 5 to 10 percentage points higher, which has been consistent throughout the pandemic, says Steve Sear, Delta’s executive vice president of global sales and distribution.

Suburban and small metro markets are driving the highest level of corporate bookings for InterContinental Hotels Group properties in the U.S., a spokeswoman says, noting that the top segments for corporate travel growth include transportation/airline workers and those in professional services.

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Big corporate travel-management companies are hovering around 50% of 2019 booking levels, much of which is due to the lack of international travel, says Brandon Strauss, president of CapTrav, a company that captures corporate travel bookings data.

Smaller companies and startups say it has been critical for them to get back on the road to meet with clients and prospective customers. A recent survey conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that 77% of business travelers say that in-person meetings and business travel foster collaboration in a way virtual interactions cannot.

Sam Hocking, the president and co-founder of San Francisco-based talent and location analytics firm Vertis, says that six or nine months ago, customers demurred when he asked for in-person meetings. Many were willing only to meet in coffee shops rather than in their offices.

That has changed recently, he says. In February, a customer in Chicago that had declined a visit in 2021 said it was open to an in-person gathering. Mr. Hocking and his co-founder jumped on a plane and spent a full day with the client.

The increased travel does have a costly side effect. With rising fuel prices and other inflationary issues, the price of hotel rooms, rental cars and other travel expenses is rising.

Jeff Fishman, founder of JSF Financial, an investment advisory firm for high net-worth individuals, went to Phoenix last month to visit clients and stayed at his usual hotel there. The hotel was hosting a big conference for a medical association, pushing room rates to $1,100 a night, compared with previous rates of $300 to $400.

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