Business travel trends for 2021: Will corporate travel ever be the same?

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There’s no question that business travel trends are set to change considerably in 2021. Why? Well…2020 has hardly been the easiest year for corporations. Ever since the first lockdowns in February and March, the business travel sector has practically been at a standstill.

The travel industry is expected to lose almost 50% of its revenue globally across the year. A lot of that’s down to a whopping loss of more than 800 billion USD of spending in the business travel sector in particular. Moreover, major corporate-focused airlines – BA, Qantas, Singapore Airlines – are either still flying at hugely reduced capacities or are completely grounded.

So, what’s the outlook for business travel trends going into the new year? What will 2021 bring for the industry? And, crucially, will hopping around the globe for meetings and work ever really be the same again?

A reduction in flying – but not too much of a reduction!

Back in the boom days of 2019, before anyone even knew what COVID-19 was, flying accounted for a mega 17% of the total spend in the world of corporate travel. That, in turn, accounted for up to 75% of profit for the airlines, with business travelers spending far more than your average tourist.

These days, those numbers are just a fraction of what they were. Most businesses simply aren’t flying at all, while others are only investing in short-haul business travel, which is considered generally less high risk in the coronavirus era. The real question is how long that depression will last…

Research findings have been cautious in writing off flying for business in 2021. A survey of 15 global managers revealed that most envisaged a big cut in the short term but were far more optimistic about the long term. What’s more, there’s precedent: 9/11. That had an effect on the business sector that lasted several years, although numbers started creeping back to near-normal levels relatively quickly.

The Zoom boom

Virtual meeting spaces have soared in popularity as the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged conventional business travel. Leveraging new technologies in AV interfacing and high-speed internet, it’s offered a new way to conduct meetings and forums online.

However, it’s important not to overstate the usefulness of tools like Zoom. Business leaders have urged caution to those who hail it as the ‘new normal’ and the killer of classic corporate globetrotting. They agree that Zoom and other interfacing tools have been a godsend in the current climate, but they’re not convinced that they’re here to stay.

A poll of the Global Business Travel Association revealed that more than 50% of members were preparing for a return to travel in the near future. It’s a move backed up by more fundamental research in psychology, which reveals that something as simple as a physical handshake can have a positive effect on getting deals done.

Basically, coronavirus doesn’t look like the end of the business travel everyone’s used to; more like a hiatus for the time being. 

Eco-friendly business travel

The COVID-19 pandemic has been touted as a way to re-think the way we do things and a chance to forge a greener future across the board. That harmonizes nicely with business travel trends that were already taking hold in 2019 in a world increasingly conscious about its CO2 emissions and its impact on the environment.

This might well manifest in an increased use of overland transport like trains, a greater uptake in corporate carbon offsetting, and – the most exciting of the lot – the rise of bleisure. Blei…what? A portmanteau of ‘business’ and ‘leisure’, it’s all about making travel trips of mixed purposes.

So, you’ll get to have that board meeting in Bangkok but also laze on the white-sand beaches of Koh Phi Phi when you’re done. Stats show that’s not only good for worker wellbeing, but also fantastic for the environment, simply by squeezing more use from every drop of fuel expended on your travels. 

Long haul might be off the menu for now

Although studies have shown that flying could be quite a low COVID risk activity in the grand scheme of things, there are issues of corporate wellbeing and ethics to factor in. We’ve seen how that’s led to a huge reduction in the number of business flights currently running. But it also seems to be affecting where and how far employees are willing to go for their work.

It’s not hard to see why. A jaunt more than 24 hours around the globe via changeover hubs in the Middle East and East Asia is bound to be riskier than a simple A-to-B short haul connection from city to city. In addition, travelers don’t have the added health pressures of traveling long haul to contend with – things like jet lag, which is thought to be intimately linked to the activity of the immune system.

The age of the digital nomad

Some people are seeing 2021 as a year to do things differently. Very differently.

Without an office to go to or a strict meeting schedule to keep, they’ve realized the pleasures of remote work. COVID shutdowns and lockdowns gave them the joys of working from home, of being their own project managers, and not being stuck to a single location.

That opens up the world of the digital nomad. It’s been a growing sector in the biz travel world for some years now. Essentially, these are people who don’t have a fixed place to work and can practice their trade wherever they are, provided they have an internet connection and a laptop.

More and more companies now seem to be letting their employees take on remote working in light of COVID-19, while thousands are going the full hog and becoming freelancers in their field. That said, digital nomadism is still very much in its early stages, although hotspots like Bali, Thailand, and Portugal have emerged as leading destinations of choice.

Whether it’s one of the business travel trends that will continue despite possible border closures in 2021 is something that remains to be seen.


There’s no doubt that business travel trends in 2021 will be very different to 2020 and before. The coronavirus pandemic and a changing planet have seen to that. If you have anything to add to this guide, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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