Business travel updates

He was rather short, probably in his forties, with pale hair, icy eyes and the steely voice of a relentlessly intrusive guy.

“All of your liquids have to be put in a single plastic bag no bigger than eight by eight,” he said bluntly when I was on the security line at Stansted Airport last weekend.

I had two bags, both the wrong size, and one of them contained an item that the man said would be confiscated immediately: roll-up mosquito repellent.

“But I’ve been flying this stuff for years!” I moaned. “And where is the rule that a bag has to be eight by eight inches?” Behind me in the queue, I felt my eyes begin to roll as people realized they were in the presence of the worst traveler: the idiotic kind.

The security guard was right. The pocket size rule has been around since at least 2006, a Google search later revealed, and while the insect repellent rules are less clear, I should have known better.

Not having been to an airport in almost 18 months wasn’t really an excuse. Neither was the worrying fear that another officer would pounce on a bug lurking in the thick folders of Covid papers required to get on the plane. Not even the fear that if I ever managed to board the rammed Ryanair flight to Spain, I would be happy to leave uninfected.

The whole experience left me with an overwhelming thought: If this is the future of flying, just for a summer vacation, business travel will be in trouble for quite a while.

Airline executives predicting a “renaissance” in business travel, as Ed Bastian of Delta Air Lines did in June, may take comfort in the notion that vacation is optional while work travel is essential.

But Covid has revealed a great unspoken truth about business travel: a lot has been done for reasons unrelated to business.

Before the pandemic, a business trip offered the winning combination of getting out of the office and heading to a new place you’ve always wanted to visit – or an old one whose hangouts you’ve missed.

Unfairly, work trips also made it possible to avoid domestic drudgery while increasing one’s own importance. Of course you wanted to be home for that parent-teacher night next month, but unfortunately! You had to go to a scheduled business conference in Aspen. Or Bali. Or Barcelona and all the other destinations that once illuminated a work calendar with such glittering promises.

If you think this sounds too cynical, consider what 3,850 business travelers in 25 global markets told researchers in a survey commissioned by SAP Concur, a company that sells travel management software.

An impressive 96 percent were ready to return to business travel and 65 percent were “very willing”. But when asked about their personal reasons for wanting to return to a business lounge, the 54 percent who said they wanted to connect with customers and colleagues almost matched the 52 percent who said they were “new “Wanting” to experience places.

In addition, 41 percent said they like to “take a break from everyday life” and 19 percent just looked forward to dressing up and going somewhere.

I don’t blame them. And while Covid has shown comprehensively how much of work can be done easily and cheaply on the screen, business travel will never completely go away.

Of course, it’s better to show up in person, for example to tour a factory building before your company buys it, or to convince a customer to sign a large contract with your company, rather than signing a hungry new competitor.

Personally, I can’t wait to interview people in person in their natural surroundings instead of on a screen.

But I also know that before 2020 I would have thought it impossible to do something like an IPO from home on Zoom. Then I met the founder of a British company who just did just that – very successfully.

The pandemic has a habit of turning predictions to dust, but if business travel bounces back soon I will be seriously surprised.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark