The future of face-to-face meetings

Could online communications, environmental worries and cost-cutting kill business travel?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What’s the future for business travel? Does it even have one? These were the questions MT found itself contemplating at a recent round-table organised by hotel group InterContinental. There’s no doubt that travel budgets have been slashed in the recession – companies can’t afford non-stop business-class flights and 5-star hotels all round these days. And as video conferencing and VOIP gets better and more secure, will business travellers still need to traipse round the world, belching out carbon? We don’t know the answer – but we can’t help feeling that it will always be easier to cut a deal face-to-face…

The consensus among those present (a mix of IHG’s big clients and partners) was that the recession has not only had a massive impact on the business travel market, but also a lasting one. The feeling seemed to be that we’d never go back to the good old pre-crunch days when execs would book meetings on the other side of the world at short notice, and then just turn up and fly – nowadays the lead time is much longer, because companies want to get the best fares and rates. Companies are also getting smarter – arranging longer trips and packing in more meetings for example, or making greater use of day trips if travel time permits. BA’s Richard Tams says a distinction has been drawn between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ travel – so ‘good’ is seeing customers and achieving stuff, ‘bad’ is going to LA for a jolly with your American office.

Sustainability was also high on the agenda, as you’d expect. After all, business travel produces a lot of CO2 - and PwC’s Sam van Leeuwen said that Generation Y types were particularly keen on knowing what the company’s doing about it (in most cases this means emissions trading, investment in renewable energy, tree planting and so on). Airlines like BA are committed to reducing their emissions, but this is clearly not an issue that’s going to go away (though Tams is of the opinion that it’s still basically a box-ticking exercise for most companies).

Of course these days, technology - specifically videoconferencing and online communications – is sufficiently developed to offer a potential alternative (there’s still some nervousness about security, by the sounds of it, but that should subside over time). But the feeling seemed to be that it’s still only suitable for certain types of interaction, i.e. maintaining a contact that’s already established. Execs still see face-to-face meetings as the best way of building relationships and making deals. Call us old-fashioned, but we can’t see that changing any time soon...

 

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