Best of Working It: ‘Flight shame’ and the return of business travel


This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: Best of Working It — ‘Flight shame’ and the return of business travel

Isabel Berwick
Do you think we’ve seen the end of the dodgy hotel room and the creepy guy in the bar? Has the pandemic made us rethink that kind of low-grade, cheapo conference? Is it all gonna be high-end intentional stuff now?

Evan Konwiser
I mean, my instinct tells me, no. I don’t think those things are going anywhere. (laughter) I do think we talk about intentful, purposeful travel. And I think in a world where we’re watching out for the environment and we’re watching it obviously for cost as well, and we’re sensitive to our use of time, then surely we have to think carefully about our trips. But think about the macro trend of the last ten years though: we’ve had a macro trend towards more use of video conferencing, and we’ve had a macro trend towards more distributed teams, right? And Covid was an acceleration. It wasn’t a new trend. It was just an acceleration of that trend. And during that whole time, business travel grew, healthy growth above GDP. It turns out when you have more virtual teams and you have more video conferencing, you create more demand for travel because now you’re working with people all over the world or all over the country, where previously you were working with people who are only in your city or in your office.

So video conferencing is an entry point to creating demand for travel. The thing we need to do now, though, is make sure that that travel is really building relationships and creating collaboration and cultural opportunities that are just maximum value for everybody. And I think Covid has given us an opportunity to look at that with a fresh lens, and we’re excited for that because in the travel industry, what do we want? What do I want? I want it to, you know, minimise impact on the environment, maximise impact on you as a person and your company. And I think Covid is gonna create a fresh start in a very positive way for our industry.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It with me, Isabel Berwick. Over the summer, I’m taking a break, so we’re replaying some of our favourite episodes. And this one has been one of our biggest hits to date with listeners. And it’s not surprising. It’s about the future of business travel, as in, does it have a future? Because not only are people rethinking their plans after the pandemic, not to mention the enormous queues at many airports because there aren’t enough staff, there’s also this Swedish word flygskam, which has become part of our business vocabulary, and it means flight shame. Do you need to be taking that journey? Is it really worth it? And can we really, hand on heart, justify getting on a plane for a conference that could happen online? Or is it actually our online working that’s making business travel an even more valuable way of connecting with colleagues and clients than it was before the pandemic? That voice you heard was Evan Konwiser. He’s got an extremely long title: executive vice-president of Product Strategy and Communications for American Express Global Business Travel. Here are the business travel trends as he sees it.

Evan Konwiser
The latest numbers we released through the end of February, we were more than 50 per cent back based on 2019 volumes. So still a ways to go. But that was really a sharp increase from where we were in the middle of the Omicron wave and certainly a sign that those regulations are lifted as offices open, as people thirst for the normalcy that has been lacking over the last two years. Travel is one of the first things folks are doing, and we’re seeing that in our numbers and we’re certainly seeing that anecdotally as well from customers, from friends. And clearly, leisure travel is back very strong as well. So the return is not all even, but it is absolutely on the upswing.

Isabel Berwick
How can anyone justify business travel in a world when we went remote so easily and now we’re waking up to the climate emergency?

Evan Konwiser
Well, I think we didn’t go remote so easily. I mean, I think when you’re in a crisis mode and you have no choice, you learn how to kind of accommodate that very quickly. And that’s what the world did. And it is true that a lot of businesses can function in a virtual environment. But I don’t think anybody sets out on a Monday morning and says: my goal today is to function. And during the pandemic, we spent the time, I think, trading on prior relationships, meaning we had Zoom relationships or Teams relationships with people that we knew before. So I think that’s why we see the snapback. Now you bring up a really important point on sustainability, which is we have to travel in a more sustainable way. And I think also we’re gonna look to aggressively move toward, you know, more sustainable travel techniques and tools, whether it’s rail or whether in the air. Where there is no pure substitute, we have things like sustainable aviation fuel that are new technologies that show promise, and we need to aggressively invest in supply so that we can create a sustainable travel future.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
It’s fair to say Evan’s got some vested interest in boosting business travel, and I can’t help feeling he’s being a bit vague on some of the specifics here. So I’m gonna talk to Pilita Clark, who writes FT columns on both business life and climate change. She is the perfect person to talk to about this. Pilita, what did you think of what Evan just said there?

Pilita Clark
Well, I think he’s right that we’ve obviously started to see a return of business travel and in industries and sectors that are intensely competitive, I think we’ll see more of that. You know, when a sales team starts to say that their rivals are travelling more than they are and you’re starting to see results in the bottom line. And clearly, I think there is gonna be pressure for more travel. However, I think just in the same way that employees have had two years of discovering how brilliant it is to be able to sleep in a bit more and not have a commute each day, employers have discovered the brilliance of being able to operate pretty well with almost zero business travel, in some cases for months on end. And so they’ve seen the financial benefits of that. And I think for that reason that this idea of Evan’s, that video conferencing is itself going to be some sort of spur to more travel, I’m not quite sure that I buy that. And I certainly don’t buy his argument that there is really such a thing as sustainable aviation at the moment. Unfortunately, there just isn’t.

Isabel Berwick
And I was really interested, just before the pandemic, I think you wrote about this Swedish word flygskam, which is flight shame, which was actually having some effect in getting people to travel less. Can you explain what that is and is that gonna be picked up again as a sort of disincentive?

Pilita Clark
Yeah. I mean, flight shaming was starting to take off, as you say, before the pandemic. And it was really an idea that kind of just came out of nowhere, almost. Well, it came out of Sweden really initially and spread really quickly. And I think it was probably allied with the rise of the youth climate movement and Greta Thunberg’s influence. And suddenly it became much more embarrassing to talk about how much travel that you did a year, even though it has to be said aviation’s contribution to global emissions is still relatively small as a percentage. It’s well under 6 per cent and even under, depending which measurements you use, you know, it’s under 5 per cent by many assessments. So it’s not making up a big share at the moment, but it is growing. Or it was before the pandemic growing very rapidly. And that’s why there’s a lot of concern about it. The other reason there’s a huge concern is that there aren’t any easy alternatives to travelling by air as opposed to travel by road. There’s really not any such thing as an electric aeroplane at the moment at the size of a 737 or the planes that people normally take. And Airbus, for example, is saying that they’re not really probably going to have one until around the middle of the 2030s. And even then, it’s going to be a regional one. In other words, not as big as a normal plane that people hop on to. So it’s really difficult to see how the technology is going to catch up quickly with the need for more sustainability. I mean, Evan is correct that there is more sustainable aviation fuel is being developed, but at the moment it’s making up a tiny percentage of the total because it’s so expensive. The demand for it is actually there and growing, but it’s very difficult to meet that demand at the moment. And I think at the moment the total amount of sustainable aviation fuel is making up less than 1 per cent of the total. You know, it’s a tiny amount.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
So what Evan was saying is that business travel is back to 50 per cent of what it was in 2019 and rising. And those are US figures. But what’s missing has been foreign travellers essentially getting on to aircraft, as we’ve just been discussing, and that’s just starting to come back. So I asked Evan: for those who still want to travel with work and are not banned by their companies, what are the trends?

Evan Konwiser
So I think a couple of things. If you look at what Salesforce did with the ranch that they leased in California to bring people together and have immersive events for new hires or teams — you know, Salesforce is a company always on the bleeding edge of really interesting talent trends. And I love it and I think we’re gonna see more of that. And so can we break out of the traditional environments for meetings and create new, interesting venues? I think people want that decent hotel room to go back to. You don’t need to be like sleeping in a tent per se. But do you want an interesting space to spend your day and engage with people again, create culture while you’re on the road? Because if you’re not doing it every day, you really better take advantage of that time on the road to create culture and just maximise benefit and experience. And that’s gonna take more interesting places, I think, to spend your day than in a windowless room, you know, all day.

Isabel Berwick
I think it’s only a matter of time before Burning Man and Glastonbury become kind of corporate (laughter) culture outposts.

Evan Konwiser
Oh my God, that would be the real turning point.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
So now we’re in this kind of post-pandemic world, Pilita. Are we hearing a bit more about these kind of crazy away days? I’ve heard a lot about them before the pandemic, but I think this blending of events or, you know, like the Salesforce conference, where it becomes like a kind of jolly — is that part of this blurring of our home and professional lives?

Pilita Clark
Yeah. I mean, I think it probably is in a lot of ways. I was really struck about the news that EY was sending its younger people over to Disney for I think a week, wasn’t it?

Isabel Berwick
And their partners.

Pilita Clark
I was really struck by the reaction to that, that I saw online: kind of disbelief (laughter), a lot of questioning about, you know, what is this company doing, why is it doing it? And maybe that was a function of people just not having seen this happening for nearly two years. But maybe it’s a kind of a reassessment about, you know, do we really need to be doing this stuff anymore? What is the real value of it? And maybe for some companies, I’m sure that Evan’s got a point that there is a real pent-up desire to engage again and to have these sorts of experiences at work with our families in a more enjoyable and pleasurable way. But I suspect that there will be also, at the other end of the spectrum, quite a lot of questioning about whether this really needs to continue to happen.

Isabel Berwick
Or are they just gonna ditch the conference and go straight to the theme park? (laughter)

Pilita Clark
Yeah, well, I mean, I’ve never been to Disney World, but I would, I was actually intensely envious of all of these people. I’d love it if the FT sent us off to Disney World. It’s be fabulous.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
So actually, before the pandemic, we’ve ran a couple of articles about how, what was happening on the fringes of business travel conferences, things that were sort of a personalised itinerary with sort of mindfulness and yoga and massage, was becoming a much bigger thing. And people just didn’t want to sit in a hall listening to lectures all day. So I can only imagine that after the pandemic that’s going to get bigger. So I think it’s all about having perks and having fun. And I talked to Evan about this blurring of work and leisure.

Oh, I wanted to ask you about this terrible word: bleisure.

Evan Konwiser
Oh, boy. Well, I must say on the record that I absolutely abhor the word. So it sounds like you do as well. So we’re on the same page there. What it means, though, which is blending kind of a work trip and a leisure trip. Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think lots of people want to extend a trip by a couple of days, come early, stay late. This is not new, though. You know, this is something people have done for I think as long as business travel has existed, whether it’s an afternoon free, where you go out and do a sightseeing tour of a city, to you add on a few days or a weekend and you figure out how much of that is being paid for by the company and how much is being paid for by personal. I think the difference is historically, companies didn’t want to go near it. I mean, just think of the implications. I rented a car for a week. For three days, I’m on a work trip. For three days, I’m on a personal trip. I get into a fender bender. What’s going on with that insurance, you know, like, I know that’s a nitty gritty detail. But now I think we’re seeing a change. Companies now recognise, hey, this is a perk, and we even see companies now going the opposite, which is maybe we should help you plan your vacation straight out and maybe even pay for some of that, because that’s a perk associated with us as an employer and it’s very competitive right now. And if we can put that into our perk list, that could be really exciting for our people.

Isabel Berwick
So what you’re saying is that some companies will book and or pay for holidays for their staff as part of their packages?

Evan Konwiser
We’re starting to see that. Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t quite call it a trend yet, but we’ve started to see it in a place we’ve never seen it before. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it catches on because when companies start doing things like that, others take notice . . . 

Isabel Berwick
Yeah. Truly there are no boundaries between our work and personal lives anymore.

Evan Konwiser
No, I mean, listen, if you didn’t believe it before the pandemic, surely you believe it now, right? I mean, it’s wiped out every vestige of separation.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah! And your boss . . .

Evan Konwiser
For better and for worse . . . 

Isabel Berwick
And your boss knows where you are. Your boss can track you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Pilita. I really don’t know how I feel about this. But when we’re on holiday, we may truly still be part of our workplace in a very real way.

Pilita Clark
Yeah. I have to say I’m not 100 per cent sure that I could really imagine my employer arranging my holidays. Too much information (laughter) that would have to pass on. And I really don’t know that. I just can’t imagine that happening in my context. But I can, you know, why not? I mean, I can imagine there would be a lot of people who’d probably appreciate it. Maybe if they supplied a travel concierge, we could think about it, Isabel (laughter). Someone that we could ring up and have make bookings for us would be quite nice.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, but if you’re in a sector where there’s a, you know, a very tight talent market, that might be a perk that could, you know, if you’re very busy, you haven’t got time, exactly, a concierge or a booking service might be something that would, might really promote retention.

Pilita Clark
Yeah, I can imagine that. And it is interesting to hear that some companies do it. I imagine, as Evan was alluding to there, that they are probably in sectors where there’s a severe labour shortage and it’s quite hard to retain people like tech, you can imagine that’s the sort of thing that’s happening. But unfortunately in journalism, not quite yet, I’d say.

Isabel Berwick
So have you got any business trips planned, Pilita?

Pilita Clark
I have precisely zero, but I have been talking about it with colleagues and we have been mooting and muttering to ourselves about where we’d like to go and what we could do. So we’re starting to think about it, which is quite an advance.

Isabel Berwick
And I sort of feel that at the end of this, I don’t go on many business trips, but I understand why people do. And I think at heart is, well, Evan was talking about people wanting to get together, whether that’s at Disney or on a beach. If we can get there without flying, so much the better. We live in London so we can get by train to across Europe. So I’m very available if anybody (laughter) wants me to on a business trip. But I really draw the line at my company booking and paying for my holiday. I think that is, you know, it might catch on. I might, in two years’ time, we might be sitting there on the beach, on our FT holiday . . . 


Pilita Clark
Yeah. Sipping our piña coladas, having told them exactly where we want to go in the Maldives. And yes, it’s entirely possible and something to think about. But for the moment, to be honest, I’d be very pleased just to get on a plane and go anywhere.

Isabel Berwick
Quite. That’s a good place to end.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Thanks to Evan Konwiser and Pilita Clark for taking part in this episode, which originally aired in May 2022. Please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you. We’re at workingit@ft.com or with me @isabelberwick on Twitter. If you’re enjoying the podcasts, we’d really appreciate it if you left us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And if you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up for our new Working It newsletter. It’s got the best of FT reporting on the future of work, plus some content you won’t get anywhere else. Sign up at ft.com/newsletters. Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks to the producer Anna Sinfield, executive producer Joe Wheeler and mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy, with research from Amalia Swartland. And from the FT, we have editorial direction from Renée Kaplan and Manuela Saragosa and production support from Persis Love. Thanks for listening.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.



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