What's driving the cautious recovery in business travel?

Updated: Sep 5

TALENT MOBILITY: The Asia Pacific business travel market is expected to exhibit moderate growth over the five years until the end of 2026.

However, It is fair to say that growth in both short and long-term trips is markedly slower than the long term global average, even since movement restrictions began easing at the start of 2022.

Despite transaction levels in international corporate travel seeing a bounceback to between 50% and 70% of pre-covid levels, this part of the world is still lagging behind.

According to Timothy Williams, chief financial officer for the Flight Centre Travel Group in Asia, the global trajectory represents an underlying desire to return to face-to-face meetings. "Successful business development in 2022 is dependent on in-person contact, and despite the slow response of markets here, we're confident that Asia's recovery will mirror that of the Americas and Europe in the coming months," he tells Chief of Staff Asia.

Despite this optimism, there are still some challenges holding talent mobility back, and many Asian companies are not as eager to jump straight back into pre-pandemic levels of travel.

A recent Bloomberg survey of 45 large businesses showed that 84% of those companies planned to spend less on post-pandemic travel, despite easing restrictions. Respondents to the survey predicted travel budgets would likely shrink anywhere from 20% to 40% from 2019 levels.

Citing the efficacy of virtual software, a worrying global economic situation, and general budgetary constraints, spending on corporate trips may slip to as low as USD 1.24 trillion by 2024 — a USD 200 billion decrease from pre-pandemic levels.

Further research by the Collinson Group and the Centre for Aviation paints a similar picture, finding that companies in the Asia-Pacific region are unlikely to reanimate business travel to levels that employees in particular would like. Of those surveyed, just under a third expected that corporate travel would not even reach 20% of 2019 levels by the end of 2022.

A gap in expectations

This is all well below the expectations and hopes of many senior professionals, for whom business travel had once been an engaging perk and realisable reward for work well done. Many view trips as opportunities to reinforce relationships, broaden horizons, make personal connections with customers and colleagues, and experience new places.

They are also used to help high potential staff progress their careers. Global research has identified that one in four business travellers believe the lack of travel opportunities over the last two-and-a-half years has put them at a competitive disadvantage. This figure has doubled since 2020. Keen to make up for lost time, eight in 10 travellers surveyed hope to travel abroad for business before the end of 2022, but there is some hesitancy from employers to simply flick a switch and return to the 2019 ways of doing business.

Nearly two-thirds of Asia Pacific business travellers say they are driving the return to the road, rather than their companies. This creates yet another talent retention challenge for HR and travel managers in the era of The Great Resignation.

It is therefore vital for HR teams to assuage employees' expectations in the short term.

According to Chris Russell, the Managing Director of global recruitment consultancy Argyll Scott in Thailand and Vietnam (pictured, right), international travel has been particularly slow to restart because of lingering restrictions in key destinations such as Hong Kong and Mainland China.

"Many companies are prioritising domestic travel, and some regional heads are starting to get back together,” he explains, noting that organisations need to ask new questions for every trip: “Is this meeting necessary? Does it need to be face to face? If you are travelling, what is the reason?

“Retaining talent is vital, so the solution may be to prioritise only essential travel to employees who will further the company's aims," he emphasises.

Despite short-term travel still being in a holding phase, long-term placements are still highly sought after, and companies are still offering employees opportunities to come to Asia to live and work. "With travel restrictions disappearing, I think employees are jumping at the opportunity to take the plunge and move overseas," Russell said.

For a market such as Asia, which was the world's largest business travel market pre-pandemic, accounting for more than a third of US$1 trillion in annual spending globally, employees are not the only ones who will be looking at getting business travel moving again.

This feature was extracted from Chief of Staff Asia's report on Talent Mobility. For further coverage, and access to the full report, please see any of the below links:

On the Road Again: Talent Mobility in the New Normal (full report)

Staff mobility enjoys a cautious rebuild: Chief of Staff research (news highlight)

What's driving the cautious recovery in business travel? (feature)

Primary drivers for international assignments (data analysis)

Refresh needed for travel and mobility policies (feature)

Business travel trends: Working on holiday or on holiday at work (feature)

Expatriate package costs in Southeast Asia (infographic)

The three industries where staff are most looking to restart business travel (feature)

Delving into the future of talent mobility (infographic)

Agility and flexibility in need for post Covid business travel (wrap-up)

This Chief of Staff Asia research paper has been proudly supported by the following Chief of Staff Asia partners:

Santa Fe Relocation

Santa Fe Relocation is a Global Mobility company specialising in managing and delivering high-quality relocation services worldwide.

ECA International

ECA International is the world's leading provider of knowledge, information and software for the management and assignment of employees worldwide.

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