Business travelers are the most lucrative customer for the hospitality industry, and they were all but wiped out during the coronavirus pandemic.
The business travel sector is not expected to have a full recovery until 2024, according to a new American Hotel & Lodging Association report out Thursday. The AHLA forecasts business travel to be down 85% compared to 2019 through April 2021, and then will only tick up slightly.
Traveling for work comprises the largest source of hotel revenue, which heavily relies on conference programming to buoy the business. Direct spending on business travel, including for meetings and events, reached $334.2 billion in 2019 and fell to $141 billion in 2020, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Meetings and conferences typically account for 38% of the total spending.
Even with tens of millions of Americans getting at least their first dosage of the coronavirus vaccine, supply issues and new variants of the virus could cause more unseen damage. Still, some executives are feeling more bullish than ever on the return of the business trip.
Willy Walker, the chief executive and chairman of commercial real estate financing company Walker & Dunlop (WD), said he believes business travel will come roaring back soon, and it will be a bandwagon effect.
“A lot of people said the overnight business trip to go win a deal or meet with a recruit or meet with your team is a thing of the past. I could not disagree with that more because I think that the competitive landscape today allows all of us to interact via Zoom. But the moment that a competitor of Walker & Dunlop travels to a city to meet with a client to win a financing or to sell a property and I have the opportunity to Zoom or get on an airplane and the competition has gotten on an airplane, I'm getting on an airplane and I’m booking that hotel room,” he said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Live this week.
“So I think there is a disconnect right now where people say we're going to be in this operating environment indefinitely. I think it snaps back very, very, very much quicker than most people are projecting,” he said.
A ‘structural reduction’ in business travel?
To be sure, Walker’s opinion doesn’t necessarily reflect the consensus outlook for business travel. Business leaders across hospitality, travel, and tech have been vocal about the lasting shift they’re expecting in the space. “Whenever this [pandemic] is over, we will have practiced for more than one year how to interact across very, very big distances. So, we do expect a structural reduction of the business travel market,” trivago (TRVG) CEO Axel Hefer told Yahoo Finance Live in November.
In November, Microsoft (MSFT) founder and philanthropist Bill Gates predicted that over 50% of business travel will disappear forever. Earlier in the pandemic, he commented during a conversation on LinkedIn: “I doubt there will be that many face-to-face shareholder meetings. Now everybody’s got permission. Also the amount of innovation in the software that facilitates this thing, so you think...what does a virtual courtroom, a virtual legislature look like? And in some ways you can create something that’s more efficient and better than what was there before.”