Liam Richards / The Globe and Mail
Brendan King recalls that he was out and about most of his work time until COVID-19 brought all travel to a standstill.
The customer base of his Saskatoon-based software company is largely American, so he worried when he could no longer meet her in person. But the managing director of Vendasta Technologies Inc. stated that it didn’t matter.
By doing virtual business, Mr. King was able to maintain relationships with his customers. It also made him rethink what kind of travel was necessary. “That changed the calculation,” he said.
Beginning July 5th, eligible Canadian travelers who are fully vaccinated and have negative COVID-19 test results and symptoms will be able to enter Canada without mandatory hotel stays and home quarantines.
Even if business trips that are not absolutely essential are coming up soon, Corporate Canada is not on the way to the airports yet. According to Mr. King, “We’re not going to run and get on a plane right away.”
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The pandemic has caused many companies to rethink their business travel strategies. According to the Global Business Travel Association, business travel in Canada fell 51 percent in 2020. As restrictions relax and vaccinations speed up, business leaders hold discussions on next steps. For some, it’s a restless waiting game until the borders are reopened. But for many, a hybrid approach to travel may be the new normal.
Magnet Forensics, a digital investigative software company based in Waterloo, Ontario, is one such company. CEO Adam Belsher said that while he expects the company’s future travel budget to return to prepandemic levels soon, priorities will shift. Last year, Magnet Forensics successfully converted its annual conference, which was supposed to take place in Tennessee, into a virtual format, thus rethinking the physical structure of the company. With more employees now working remotely, her business travel strategy focuses on bringing together teams of employees from offices across Canada and abroad for personal projects.
Vendasta is also working on a new framework. Mr King said trips to customers would be required in a scenario where they were competing for a contract, but trips could be reduced in cases where the customers are satisfied. He added that it will be the responsibility of CEOs to curb the instincts of travel-loving employees.
“Some of these salespeople want to get back on the streets because that’s what they do. But the value isn’t there so we won’t. I say, as CEO, we won’t do that, ”he said.
In other industries, on the other hand, corporate executives can hardly wait to get their employees back on the plane. Chris Lynes, senior vice president of corporate brands at Flight Center Travel Group, said bookings have increased significantly in the past few weeks and he sees a full calendar of corporate events planned for January.
For Karima-Catherine Goundiam, CEO of the digital marketing company Red Dot Digital Inc., there is no alternative to personal travel. Before the pandemic, Ms. Goundiam estimates she was away on business half the year, visiting destinations like London, Paris, Dubai and Kuwait to meet customers. However, she is most eager to resume her international lecturing activities.
“That’s where I found the biggest limitation last year. As a speaker, I feed on the energy of the people in front of me, on the interaction and engagement. I don’t exactly enjoy doing this through a Zoom meeting and it’s definitely something I would be willing to travel for. “
Those who enjoy traveling at full speed include employees whose work depends on being in a physical environment or with equipment, such as construction and engineering offices. As President of Canada’s Manufacturers and Exporters, Dennis Darby campaigned last year to keep these industries their essential status, but travel has still been reduced significantly.
“It was unpredictable. With mandatory quarantines, it wasn’t glamorous for travelers right now, ”Darby said. “And we know they lost business because Canada’s rules were stricter than most.”
Now, he said, the imminent easing of border restrictions will make an immediate difference to businesses that do practical work.
For PCL Construction, a company with offices in Canada, the United States and Australia, the first step in easing travel restrictions is welcome news. CEO Dave Filipchuk said the move will help Canadians in the construction business return from work trips. But he said there would still be hurdles. For one, other countries like Australia have stricter travel restrictions.
Mike Greenley, CEO of MDA Ltd. (Maker of the legendary Canadarm) said he expected his company’s travel activity to return to normal levels once restrictions are lifted. Although the company pioneered virtual work in 2020, successfully listed on the stock exchange and brought on more than 350 new hires online, with clients in 25 countries requiring on-site visits and meetings, Greenley said his company is likely to return to the same level of travel as before and maintaining the same budget.
However, other types of corporate meetings may take longer to recover. Industry experts assume, for example, that trade fairs will not return in full until spring 2022.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said easing travel restrictions after July 5 will only help a very small segment of the business community – fully vaccinated Canadian citizens and permanent residents who travel for important business.
“If you’re hosting a conference and want a speaker or delegate from the US, they can’t come. We also have travel restrictions in Canada. Right now it is easier to vacation in Tuscany than to take a drive through the Maritimes, ”said Perrin Beatty, President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Restaurant Canada’s trade show, which drew more than 20,500 visitors last year, was the last major trade show in Toronto before the pandemic shutdown. Now the personal return is scheduled for 2022 in Toronto.
Troy Taylor, vice president of operations at Restaurants Canada, predicts the event will be 80 percent busy and attract 40 percent of vendors from outside Ontario or overseas.
Companies that attend trade shows often rely on these events as their primary method of generating year-round revenue, which makes their ROI a certainty, Taylor said. However, he acknowledges that the pandemic has spurred many companies to use digital technology in ways they did not have before – meaning that while the trade shows continued, other daily trips could be reduced.
“I’m not sure if business travel will ever be the way it was, maybe ever,” he said.
While Canada’s hospitality industry sees a seasonal surge in tourist numbers during the summer, business events and travel support the industry for the remainder of the year. The Hotel Association of Canada estimates pre-pandemic revenue will not hit until 2025.
Blair Gable / The Globe and Mail
“We know for sure that there are no fully programmed large corporate events on the books this fall. As a result, our downtown hotels are practically empty, ”said Alana Baker, vice president of politics and public affairs for the association.
Kyle Handfield, CEO of Affinity Integrated Service & Supply, said he recognized that the component of personal work that has always been considered so important could be overstated. His company spent last year looking for funds to buy and consolidate restaurant equipment companies in the US from home working.
“What I’ve seen firsthand and seen in the rest of the community are the deals that used to require face-to-face contact that have been so normalized over online video calls.”
However, he is confident that important relationship-building meetings, for example to finance the financing, will take place in person in the future.
Mark Skapinker, managing partner of Toronto-based venture capital firm Brightspark Ventures, agreed. He said he has invested in two companies in the past few months without meeting any of the business owners, but plans to return to business travel after the restrictions are lifted.
“This is such an important aspect of our work,” said Mr Skapinker. “We value the opportunity to spend time personally with the people in whom we invest.”
For some, however, curbing business travel is not just about cultivating professional relationships, it’s also about valuing personal ones.
Prior to the pandemic, Jack Newton, CEO of legal software company Clio, said he had an intense itinerary. He would travel to offices in Dublin and across Canada for a week or two a month.
“My litmus test has always been that if I get Super Elite with Air Canada, I’ll probably be out and about and buy my wife a nice bouquet of flowers,” said Mr. Newton.
Now, he said, he couldn’t imagine traveling so intensely again. Since his company has a hybrid approach to work, shortening trips isn’t just about working efficiently and environmentally – it’s also about balance.
“Personally, I noticed how much I miss with my family. I have three school-age children that I enjoy hanging out with, and that family time is something I don’t really appreciate. The effect of being around every day is something I really enjoyed. “
With a report by Eric Atkins in Toronto
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