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Many executives don’t expect business travel to return to pre-pandemic levels for several years — if ever

Companies are questioning the value of flying workers in for face-to-face meetings.
Companies are questioning the value of flying workers in for face-to-face meetings.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Udit Batra would travel to Europe every other week for his previous job leading MilliporeSigma, a Burlington-based life sciences business with a parent company in Germany.

The company he runs now, Waters Corp. in Milford, is also global, with operations in 35 countries. But even when the chief executive is once again free to fully move about the cabin, he plans to pare back his overseas travel.

Not only will that save money, but it will also spare him the physical toll that international travel can take. On those nights he had to fly to Frankfurt, he was lucky if he got four hours of solid sleep.

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“We will be much more specific and deliberate on the purpose of travel,” said Batra, who estimated that employee travel at the lab equipment supplier might eventually return to only about two-thirds of what it was before the pandemic. “We will always ask, is it worth it, or can we do something remotely? Can we be more productive? Can we not be jet-lagged?”

These are questions many of Batra’s peers in C-suites across Greater Boston are asking after 15 months of remote meetings. Many don’t envision their travel budgets getting back to pre-COVID levels, at least not anytime soon, even as COVID-related restrictions get lifted in the United States and across the globe.

Udit Batra, who runs Waters Corp in Milford, won't be flying to Europe as often as he did before the pandemic.
Udit Batra, who runs Waters Corp in Milford, won't be flying to Europe as often as he did before the pandemic. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Local employers on average estimate that only 14 percent of their pre-pandemic air travel will return by July 1, according to a poll of 110 companies conducted this spring by the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership. That number, on average, is only projected to rebound to 53 percent by January 2022. And it will only be up to 73 percent in early 2023, when COVID-19 is hopefully just a bad memory.

“The world of business has changed because of COVID, and it’s never going to go back to the way it was before,” said Jeff Leiden, the Mass. Competitive Partnership’s chairman and the executive chairman at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. “We’ve learned that there are different ways to cost-effectively and efficiently do our work that don’t have to involve in-person meetings.”

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Leiden, like Batra, said cutting back on travel will provide a better quality of life for employees, while offering companies continued cost savings.

There’s also the environmental benefit. Big publicly traded companies in particular are under pressure to reduce their carbon footprint to help slow global warming. One way to do that: put the brakes on travel.

State Street, for example, is among the big companies that have committed to becoming “net zero” in terms of their carbon impacts. Chief executive Ron O’Hanley said the Boston financial services company will take a number of steps to reach that goal over the next decade, but looking at ways to curb jet travel will certainly be one. “It’s not even just about the [financial] savings,” O’Hanley said.

At Citizens Financial Group, chief executive Bruce Van Saun envisions travel eventually rebounding to 75 to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Salespeople and executives will still need to meet with new and potential clients in person to pitch business, but internal employee meetings might be more efficiently done over the computer.

“There’s a lot of running around you can effectively cover through Zoom and Webex,” Van Saun said.

Mike Volpe, chief executive of Boston corporate travel firm Lola.com, said his team expects to see fewer business trips when video is a good substitute, and when the travel time is high compared to the duration of the meeting. That translates to far fewer day trips for a single meeting with a small group of people.

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“When you talk about flying across the country for an hour meeting, is that really going to be necessary?” Putnam Investments chief executive Bob Reynolds said. “I do think the pandemic has presented an opportunity and flexibility in the system.”

Fewer short trips might mean fewer one-night stays, though Airbnb cofounder Nate Blecharczyk sees a potential upside: With more companies allowing employees to work from anywhere, more people could travel to the headquarters for longer stretches, such as one week per quarter, for face time with colleagues.

At Logan Airport, passenger traffic has recovered to roughly half of what it was two years ago. Before the pandemic, corporate travel represented about 40 percent of the airport’s total traffic. Now, it’s in the single digits. And while Massachusetts has lifted COVID restrictions on travel, they remain in place in many countries. As a result, Scottish firm EQ Travel Management expects international travel, for leisure and corporate, might not recover until 2024, although the pace of the vaccination rollout could speed that up. Chief executive Franc Jeffrey hasn’t traveled from Scotland to his Boston office since before the pandemic began, and he remains unsure about when he might return.

Because Boston is a major destination for business travelers, the pace of this recovery will have repercussions for the local hospitality industry and other sectors that benefit from an influx of outsiders’ Amex cards. The volume of weekday hotel bookings has been about one-fourth of what it was in 2019, according to consultancy Pinnacle Advisory Group, which doesn’t see corporate demand recovering fully in the local market until as late as 2024. The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center will host its first big event next month, a cardiology conference set to draw some 7,000 people. However, the convention center authority estimates it could take up to four years for the local convention business to fully recover.

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Giant name-brand employers such as Google and Amazon could end up setting the tone, said Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“If they say, we’re ready to send our workforce on the road again, that will send a signal to the smaller companies,” Sheridan said.

Sure, some bosses are itching to hit the road, to catch up with employees and clients face-to-face after a grueling year. Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., said he fully expects to return to his pre-pandemic travel time within two years — in addition to all the obligatory Zoom calls.

“I will do just as much [travel],” Dimon said. “It’s tiring but it’s uplifting, too.”

But Dimon might be in the minority. Many other CEOs don’t expect to ever spend as much time on a plane again. And they’re not complaining about it.

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“We used to travel by default,” said Batra, the Waters Corp. chief executive. “We now realize we don’t need to unless there’s a strong need.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.