Corporate Travel Spend Returning, But Data Flawed

Cindy Apt
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Deloitte issued a report about the current state of corporate travel demonstrating its trajectory to return to 2019 levels, however, there are two points that demonstrate the outlook for corporate travellers may not be as it seems.


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Deloitte’s Corporate Travel Outlook

Management consulting giant, Deloitte, issued a report regarding the state of corporate travel and the segment’s potential for growth in 2022 and beyond. Overall, the pandemic and its lagging effects have cut corporate travel spending significantly from 2019 levels. However, as the world recovers, so too is the return of the business trip.

That said, Deloitte shows just 36% of 2019 spending has returned this year. The study surveyed corporate travel management professionals and matched actual spend with projected spend. Most business travel programs spent far less than anticipated and a cooling of that return is speculated by researchers.

“When Deloitte fielded its first corporate travel survey3 in June 2021, corporate travel spend sat around 10% of prepandemic levels. But a rebound appeared to be just around the corner. Vaccines had been widely available in the United States for a few months and many companies planned to bring employees back to offices by the fall.

A month later, delta was named a variant of concern, and many big companies pushed back their plans. The omicron variant followed delta, bringing further disruption. Corporate travel spend increased throughout the third and fourth quarters of 2021, but not at the rate that travel managers expected. When surveyed in June 2021, 34% of corporate travel managers expected to reach half of 2019 travel spend by the end of 2021. However, only 8% did[.]” – Deloitte

Metrics

The study used the sentiment of corporate travel managers and matched them against receipts for the same period. While many expected travel options to return sooner than they did (the US only cut its COVID-19 negative test requirement today), even following that return there are a few issues with the expectation of the report and its respondents.

First, the measure is based on corporate travel spending but not on net trips booked. Here’s why that matters. In 2019, hotel and airfare rates were far lower than they are now. Some hotel chains are reporting a 25% surge in pricing for room rates, others are still higher. Airfare has been at nosebleed heights for several months and looks to continue at the same elevated level. If the measure is based on how much businesses spent on travel, but all travel costs are higher than 2019 prices, then a return of 36% of 2019 levels doesn’t mean 36% return of corporate travellers, it means that the recovery is closer to 25-27% (assuming a 25-30% premium on rates.)

That matters because the number of travellers is more significant than how much businesses are paying for those trips. Why? Because general inflation means those numbers do not matter as much as they did in relation to pre-inflation numbers. Businesses may be spending 36% of what they did in 2019 on travel, yes, but they are also likely charging more for their products than they were in 2019 as well.

Impending Recession

A topic that has become more and more important in recent months is an impending recession. Projections do not address any potential for an economic downturn that would again suppress the entire travel sector but most substantially businesses that tighten their belts. In an upcoming post, I quote Secretary Yellen who believes the US has a path through the current economic headwinds and does not believe that the US is heading for a recession.

Many other experts disagree. The world’s top banker, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, is one such detractor:

“You’d better brace yourself,” Dimon told the roomful of analysts and investors. “JPMorgan is bracing ourselves and we’re going to be very conservative with our balance sheet.” – CNBC

Dimon is not alone. The Conference Board surveyed CEOs, 68% of whom believe the economy is headed for a recession, 11% of which believe that it will be a hard landing (protracted, deep recession.)

With more than two-thirds of CEOs bracing, preparing, and anticipating a slowdown, non-essential business travel will take a backseat quickly. CEOs that managed to run businesses on just 10% of 2019 travel will return to this especially as costs remain high.

Conclusion

Corporate travel may be returning (without the pre-pandemic level of service)  and though the concern is no longer about keeping travelers safe, confidence should be shrinking not increasing. Using 2019 numbers (gas was nearly half of what it is today) is a poor metric to judge a return of corporate travel on any level. Additionally, failing to include recession pressures is a further sign that even these modest increases and comically-high projected growth figures (nearly double current spend in the next 12 months) are unlikely to come to fruition.

What do you think? Is corporate travel returning or is it simply suffering higher prices and flawed data metrics?

Corporate Travel Spend Returning, But Data Flawed

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