Should You Avoid Business Travel At All Costs?

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Value, efficiency and comfort are no longer words that we can use to define business travel.

I’m not just saying this as someone who has had to run the gauntlet of hell that is travel these days. I’ve been fortunate in my woes (compared to others), but it truly doesn’t feel “worth it” anymore. Said another way, if the destination is under ten hours away by car, I’ll be driving for the next while.

First, a little background…

I’m Canadian (and where you live might have very different current outcomes). My main source of income is speaking at events all over the world. I’ve flown well over 1.5 million miles, carry the highest status you can with an airline, have Nexus/Global Entry (as well as Clear), and only use credit cards that are airline/travel based (which adds layers of services, insurance, access, etc.). In short, I can move quickly and efficiently through an airport, and I know most of the angles/travel hacks (along with having access to the concierge service). I don’t say this to brag, and I know that what we’re about to dig into is a first-world problem. Still, the struggle of business travel is real (and, this won’t take into account the environmental issues related to air travel).

My most recent adventure was a 24 hour turnaround that took me from Montreal to Las Vegas for a presentation. The travel component of my trip was an unmitigated disaster, but still mild in comparison to other stories I’ve heard from my peers, friends, family, and the media.

For better context…

I’ll use another traveler’s experience to illustrate the situation: This individual was returning to their home in Chicago (which is a 2.5 hour direct flight from Montreal). The flight was cancelled and this passenger (who has status) was rebooked for two days later and the flight was scheduled as: Montreal to Quebec City to Toronto to Chicago. You don’t have to know much about geography to understand the stupidity of that situation (and that’s if you can put aside that the next available flight was also TWO DAYS in the future).

What are we seeing?

Delays, cancellations, long cues at every part of the process (parking a car, check-in, security, lounges, restaurants, gates and even the plane’s ability to get a slot on the runway). There’s this overbearing whiff of a system that is in a state of complete chaos and on the verge of collapse.

I do not say this lightly.

The pressure is everywhere. It’s not just the airports. Hotels are sold out and charging exorbitant prices (they will no longer clean your room unless you make a special request), Ubers and taxis are expensive (gas prices are through the roof, you can also wait upwards of 30 minutes to get an Uber, and on this last trip, I paid over $95 USD for a taxi ride that was under 15 minutes)…

And the hits just keep on coming…

Once I arrived at my event, I watched the event organizers scramble as their host tested positive for Covid (along with several other speakers and guests), while a slew of other attendees got caught in travel snafus. Attendance took a significant hit from what they had expected from one day to the next. You can imagine what this means for everything from hotel rooms that were blocked to ordering food and beyond.

From my perspective, I see two major causes for all of this travel pain:

One, every aspect of the industry is short-staffed. Two, the active staff are both new employees and/or overwhelmed. When it comes to travel the speed of the system mixed with the complexity of many divergent businesses and government institutions having to work together… well… it’s a recipe for disaster. When you have new staff, they don’t have the experience of living within these complex work ecosystems. This is everything from knowing how to bend the computer system to their will or reading the moment and knowing how to work through it more efficiently than how they were trained. This is only complicated when they have no support and need to run the show on their own.

But, it’s not just the human factor.

The human factor impacts the computer systems as well. On my outbound flight, my ticket (somehow) got logged as Montreal to Las Vegas and Las Vegas to Denver as the outbound segment and Denver to Montreal as the return segment. No idea how this could happen, but none of the airline employees could fix this, making it impossible to issue my boarding passes for the return flight home. It, literally, took hours to untangle this glitch. Then – on my return flight home – I was called to the gate, because I had not been checked in to the flight, which was curious because I already had the boarding pass for this flight via the airline’s mobile app. Again, no employee for the airline could understand how I had a boarding pass for a flight that I was not even checked into on their system.

The big stuff is hard enough to fix (cancellations and delays, etc…), but it’s the little stuff… the cracks in the pavement… that not only exacerbate the stress, but erode at the trust and faith in both the brand promise and the experience. It also makes the employees look incompetent in the eyes of the customer… and that helps no one.

Ultimately, CEOs and CFOs are going to look at the skyrocketing costs of travels, layered against team members getting sick or being stuck in delays and cancellations as reasons to pull back from physical meetings and events. Couple that with the current economic woes (stock market pressure, supply chain issues and – what seems like an inevitable – recession) and we’re staring into the abyss for business travel and the events business. This concerns me on many levels. I’m an optimist that can’t seem to find any silver linings here. This will have a direct impact not just on my work, but in a world that is in desperate need to bring people together. For leaders, even creating a dynamic and valuable reason to bring your teams and customers together, is going to be severely impacted by macro forces that are completely out of your control, but will impact how people feel about their work and the culture.

What is the answer?

Simplistically, virtual events and meetings might be the only salvation until the logistics of travel get sorted. This means that leaders need to dig deeper and find more powerful ways to make meetings, events and customer engagements count. A simple Zoom link and a meeting agenda isn’t going to cut it anymore. But there are so many fires to put out, that I hesitate to provide a list of possible solutions to overcome the challenges of business travel these days. Logically, it feels like pushing things out to when the system can get its footing back seems like the only plausible answer.

What have you seen out there?