Business travel is poised for a comeback—if the Delta variant doesn’t get in the way

July 20, 2021, 9:30 PM UTC

After more than a year of endless Zoom meetings, we could be nearing a resurgence of business travel this fall—or at least that’s what some travel companies are banking on, provided the Delta variant doesn’t get in the way.

More than half of Americans think business travel is back or will be back by the end of 2021, as vaccines become more widely available, according to a new survey by travel site Kayak and public opinion firm YouGov. And while online searches during the first half of the year for midweek travel in the U.S. this fall are still down 20% compared with 2019, they are up 165% compared with 2020.

Personal travel bounded back this summer, nearly reaching pre-pandemic levels, as people hit the road on family vacations, staying at Airbnbs and visiting national parks and amusement parks. Leisure travel peaked over the July Fourth holiday, as did car travel, even amid rising hotel, car rental, and gas prices.

Business travel, however, has been slower to return. Airlines have yet to optimize travel schedules for business flights, and summertime is historically slow for business travel. Many companies, too, still aren’t prepared to bring people back to the office until fall—meaning sometimes there’s no place to meet but a coffee shop or restaurant. Business travel is still off by 60% at United Airlines, according to its CEO, Scott Kirby. But in a recent interview with CBS, he predicted an upswing. “We expect business demand is going to really pick up in September, as most of the schools are back and a lot of people are back in offices,” he said. “We don’t think it will recover fully until 2023, but we’re certainly headed in the right direction.” 

Pre-COVID, business travel accounted for 30% of airline trips and around half of the $330 billion in airline revenues in 2019, according to trade group Airlines for America and the U.S. Travel Association. American Airlines and United Airlines recently reported an uptick in interest in business travel, and a number of big conferences and events are scheduled to return to being in person, including the SXSW tech conference in Austin, slated for the spring of 2022. A May survey by the U.S. Census Bureau also showed that 35% of small-business owners plan to have travel expenses in the next six months, an uptick from April (31.5%) and mid-February (26.5%).

For some, Zoom fatigue has become full-on Zoom exhaustion. At least 25% of American business travelers say they want a job where they can travel for work, and 28% of them say they would like to go on a business trip by year-end, according to Kayak, which today officially launched a new tool for business travel called Kayak for Business, in anticipation of more such trips.

Kayak spent years building the business tool, but COVID put things on ice, said Kayak CEO Steve Hafner. He hopes as more people get vaccinated, more people will get back to business travel. “I don’t think we at Kayak are the only ones feeling that sentiment,” he said.

“I’ve been itching to travel,” said Dan Sondhelm, CEO of Sondhelm Partners, a wealth management consulting firm based in Alexandria, Va. He intends to take trips to New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the next two months to meet with prospective clients. “There is something to be said for rubbing shoulders with the folks you do business with,” he noted.

Still, Sondhelm has his eye on the recent surge in new COVID cases, which contributed to Monday’s stock market selloff. Airline stocks tumbled Monday upon news of the rising cases, dropping to a five-month low, though most of them recovered their losses by end of day Tuesday.

Sondhelm said his wife’s comfort level may ultimately determine whether he takes those trips: “We will see.”

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