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B.C. business travel returning but below pre-pandemic level

Fear of missing out prompts some to go to gatherings
Notch Therapeutics CEO David Main said he tries to be selective about his business trips but he believes attending life sciences conferences and meeting investors in person is important | Chung Chow

B.C. executives are travelling more for business than they did during the pandemic but many say they are more selective over which trips they make.

This has prompted corporate travel agents to enjoy a bump in business, with some saying that their revenue exceeds what they generated pre-pandemic.

The rise in corporate travel is still far from being at pre-pandemic levels and the jury is out on whether it will ever surpass that frequency or in money spent in standardized dollars.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK) vice-chair and renowned investor Charlie Munger earlier this year told CNBC that he doubts corporate travel will ever be what it once was.

“A lot of business travel will never come back,” he said in a CNBC interview earlier this year, before his company's annual meeting.

“Corporation after corporation is deciding one meeting a year, two meetings a year in person, and the rest Zoom. I think that's here to stay.”

Studies and surveys so far back up Munger's skepticism that a full return to corporate travel will materialize.

A 2023 Deloitte survey predicted business travel spending in the U.S. and Europe will rise to be about two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year, and not return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2024 or early 2025.

Adjusted for inflation, however, that travel spending would be below pre-pandemic levels, according to Deloitte.

A Morning Consult report earlier this year had an even bleaker outlook for business travel.

Its first key take-away lesson was that “business travel changes are permanent.” It dismissed what it called a “return to normal,” in part because corporate budgets have been cut, and in part because many workers are happiest when they do not have to travel.

B.C. executives discuss adjusting to new travel expectations

B.C. executives who spoke to BIV said they travel frequently but there are situations where they cancel trips that they would have made pre-pandemic.

Notch Therapeutics president and CEO David Main said he is selective about his trips and uses Zoom when appropriate.

He said he doubts business travel will return fully to pre-pandemic levels because people discovered that video technology can perform adequately in some situations.

Zoom, or other video technology, works well for meetings between people who already know each other, he said.

“Going forward, it's going to be a hybrid,” he said of virtual and in-person meeting attendance.

“To build new relationships, at some point in the relationship, a face-to-face meeting really helps to cement that bond.”

Meetings with investors and other important contacts are  worth making the effort to travel and be there in person, he said.

Some conferences and events in the life-sciences sector will also be important to attend because the industry is spread across the globe and it can be impossible to fully connect with counterparts unless people travel, Main said.

“I don't know that we will ever go back to the same level of travel as we did before,” he said. “There were times when I would fly to New York for one meeting and then fly back. I’m not going to do that now. I’m going to plan it, make sure I have several meetings, and that it's a productive time. If it's only one meeting, and I can't get more, I’ll just see if I can do it by Zoom. I think you will see that there will be this balance.”

There can be a Catch-22 situation with Zoom calls.

When some people confirm that they will attend a meeting using Zoom instead of appearing in person, it encourages others in the meeting to do the same, he said.

What point would there be to travel to a far-away place if many participants are going to essentially phone it in?

Conversely, Main said that there are times when executives fear missing out, he said.

A few investment conferences and medical meetings he has gone to were as well attended as ever, he said.

“The human race has this thing called FOMO – the fear of missing out,” he said. “Once everybody starts getting together, if you're not there, you feel like you are missing out.”

Main said Notch uses the corporate travel agency Direct Travel mainly because of its online booking platform, which is easy to use, and the experience has been "exceptional."

Others in Main's sector have similarly adjusted.

Aspect Biosystems CEO Tamer Mohamed told BIV that he has largely returned to his pre-pandemic travel routine.

“I travel a lot now,” he said. “It's come back almost full throttle."

tamer - rk

(Image: Aspect Biosystems CEO Tamer Mohamed has returned to a corporate travel schedule that is similar to what he had pre-pandemic | Rob Kruyt)

Mohamed said that while he would like to say that he is more disciplined in selecting the trips he takes, the reality is that he does a lot of travelling because there is an expectation that he be places in person.

"There's just something about humans connecting in person that, I think, is critical to building relationships and rapport, and making big things happen," he said.

His company tends to use the corporate travel agency Egencia, and is happy with that arrangement, he said.

Amplitude Ventures venture partner Nancy Harrison told BIV that she travels a lot because she is a board member at two companies that have headquarters in Central Canada.

She buys books of flight passes where there are up to 30 flights packaged together, she said. Many executives at her company then are able to use the flight tickets, and the prices for those tickets are set beforehand, so there is more certainty about costs.

"Unless it's complicated travel, I don't use a travel agent," she said.

Corporate travel agents enjoying sales bump

Travel agents have been doing well, however.

Inspired Travel Group CEO Danielle Riddle told BIV that her company's sales are up "pretty significantly," compared with pre-pandemic months in 2019.

Inspired Travel books approximately $800,000 worth of trips per month, and has more than 150 clients who like her company's personal service, she said.

"Because we don't have like a portal where you just log on and book your travel yourself, every single trip is done by a human," she said. "Every single request is actioned by an individual agent."

Flight delays and cancellations have become much more common than they were pre-pandemic, and in many cases airlines are making do with fewer planes because some planes were decommissioned during the pandemic.

Staff shortages have also caused flight delays or cancellations because flight crews and pilots can only work for specified periods of time without a break.

The result is more uncertainty about being able to get to destinations at needed times, she said.

"A professional knows how to deal with fare structuring reissuing tickets," she said.

"There has been almost like a learning curve for people in general about how important it is to actually have a real agent that can help you."

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