When airlines canceled flights at the beginning of the pandemic, it is likely no one had any idea how long planes would be grounded, nor the lasting impact that pause in travel—both business and leisure—would have. Now, more than a year later, travel is slowly beginning to make a comeback; it will likely be some time before the industry recovers.
Earlier this year, the Global Business Travel Association published data from a coronavirus poll intended to measure the impact on business travel following the onset of the pandemic in 2020. GBTA’s key findings include that 9 out of 10 respondents expect their company’s 2021 travel budget to be lower than 2019’s budget, with average spending 52% lower than pre-pandemic. Looking ahead, four in 10 respondents do not expect to attend in-person meetings or events until Q3 2021. To that end, one in three expects business travel to resume over the summer and into the fall.
Jack Wert, executive director of Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that business travel essentially disappeared for the destination over the past year.
“We’re getting some [business travel],” Wert says, “and it’s probably close-in business from Miami or Fort Lauderdale for the day or overnight. We don’t see that particular segment recovering much at all this year. A good deal of that is the concern about traveling, and if they’re [business travelers] working for a company, that company may still have travel restrictions and may not be allowing people to travel. A lot of it has to do with vaccines.”
Findings from the GBTA poll support Wert’s insights: Two-thirds of respondents say that “vaccinating certain travel industry frontline workers such as flight attendants, pilots and hotel employees would make them ‘somewhat’ or ‘a great deal’ more comfortable getting back on the road.”
Brian Holly, president of Holly/Field Hospitality and managing director at Holiday Inn Fort Myers Airport at Town Center, agrees with Wert and the GBTA findings, saying that corporate group and conference business will not return until vaccines are readily available and proven effective.
Regarding hotels popular with business travelers, Holly said that inland Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW)-area hotels are down 35-50% in 2021 from the same timeframe in 2020. He did say, however, that individual corporate travelers have slowly begun to return, and construction-related businesses are meeting—socially distanced, of course.
There is a glimmer of hope as we look ahead in 2021 and into 2022. Wert says that group business travel (e.g. conventions, conferences, company-wide meetings) fell dramatically beginning in March 2020, and that meetings scheduled for March through June 2020 were rescheduled into Fall 2020, then to Q1 2021, and then to Q2 2021.
“What we are seeing now in group meeting hotels, it looks like Q3 2021 [events] haven’t moved, and we are getting input they’re going to stay as scheduled,” says Wert. “We see group meeting business beginning to recover in Q3 going into 2022, knowing that things are still changing on a daily basis.”