Business travel resuming for many after pandemic-related cuts

More than one-third of finance leaders say their organizations are resuming customary business travel or plan to do so by the end of the year.
By Sarah Nagem

As more people get vaccinated against COVID-19 and companies settle into a new rhythm, some business leaders say they are ready to resume travel. 

In the AICPA’s Business and Industry Economic Outlook Survey for the second quarter, 34% of respondents said they have already returned to pre-pandemic levels of travel or plan to do so by the end of the year. Another 29% said the change will occur in the next 12 months.

The survey was conducted between April 27 and May 24 and included more than 770 CPAs, mostly CEOs, CFOs, and controllers. 

According to the survey, there is more hesitancy regarding global travel, with 28% saying they were easing restrictions on domestic travel but keeping restrictions in place for international trips. 

Some leaders say they saved a lot of money on travel during the pandemic — and, in many cases, spent more on technology — but the savings aren’t enough to make up for in-person interactions and professional development opportunities.

Making deals

Joseph Silano, CPA, director of finance and accounting for Hudson Capital Properties, looks at it this way: “You’re going to have to travel if you’re a deal person.”

The company, which employs 13 people in New York City and Raleigh, N.C., wants a representative to meet face to face about new projects, Silano said. 

In the survey, 66% of respondents who said they planned to ease travel restrictions for the rest of the year said they would allow travel for sales or client meetings.

Steven R. Goodman, CPA, president of Goodman Financial Corp. in Houston, said his 21-person firm will resume traveling to see out-of-state clients as the need arises.

“Travel is always limited for us in the sense that we don’t make sales calls,” he said. “But we do travel to visit clients or to visit those that they refer.”

Networking

Goodman said his money management and financial advisory firm will also resume travel for professional development, including for meetings of the Texas Society of CPAs and conferences for registered investment adviser firms.

Many events were held virtually during the pandemic, but Goodman said it’s tough to network without face-to-face interaction. So he’s looking forward to seeing people again in person.

“We’re starting to plan things,” he said. “I’m looking at places that I had planned on traveling and saying, ‘OK, is it time to reschedule those events?’”

In the survey, 55% of respondents who said they planned to ease travel restrictions for the rest of the year indicated they would allow travel for industry conferences, trade shows, and exhibitions.

While business leaders say they are ready to resume travel for professional development and networking, employees might still be hesitant.

James McDermott, CPA, the CFO for PolySystems, an actuarial software and services firm in Chicago, said employees aren’t jumping at the chance to attend this year’s Society of Actuaries conference.

“Part of it is, none of the employees are really interested in traveling,” he said.

Goodman said he expects conferences to now cater to both in-person and virtual attendees.

“So for those people who kind of got comfortable with the virtual, maybe doing it in a hybrid approach — I think that might be the new norm,” he said. “There’s a lot of people craving personal interaction.”

New technology

McDermott said his company will likely never return to pre-pandemic levels of travel. Its tech-savvy clients welcomed more virtual communication.

Of survey respondents who said they would not return to pre-pandemic travel, 46% cited the shift to digital.

Cutting back on travel isn’t just a financial decision, McDermott said, as the clients absorb most of the costs. It’s mostly about using workers’ time wisely.

Before the pandemic, he said, an employee would have flown to New York City for a meeting.

“You’re going to spend maybe two hours that day at the client’s,” McDermott said, adding that travel time would be much longer. “Whereas now you just plug in and talk, and that two-hour meeting might only be an hour and you recapture the time spent traveling.”

Goodman sees the value in virtual meetings, especially when clients are comfortable with that way of communicating. A retired couple kept putting off an in-person meeting, and the firm finally convinced them to do a virtual call. 

“They did the Zoom meeting, and I’ll be honest with you, at the end of the meeting, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is fantastic. We don’t know that we’ll ever come back in the office again,’” Goodman said.

Goodman’s office space was already being remodeled and expanded before business travel was curtailed by the pandemic, and those kinds of interactions convinced him to add new technology in the conference rooms to enhance the virtual experience.

McDermott’s company is doing the same.

“As we come back, we’ll probably be spending more money,” he said. “We’ll be setting up conference rooms that will be a little more high-tech than they are now, with devices that can follow the speaker around. And there are virtual whiteboards and things like that. We’re looking into doing that and spending money actually post-pandemic for these virtual meetings.”

The second-quarter survey showed rising optimism about the domestic and global economy, as well as respondents’ own businesses. The respondents forecast sharp rises in revenue and profit for the next 12 months.

“The business travel responses within our survey support its broader findings: There is growing optimism about the recovery accelerating through the end of the year,” Ash Noah, CPA, CGMA, vice president and managing director–CGMA Learning, Education & Development for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA, said in a news release. “At the same time, we are seeing a reassessment or reset on what kinds of travel represent true value. We can also expect a longer lag in global travel resumption, given the varying degrees of effective pandemic response within different regions and nations.”

Sarah Nagem is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.

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