The pros and cons of business travel in a COVID-19 world

omicron business travel

After rolling the dice with international travel while the Omicron variant is on the prowl, I’m reconsidering my relationship with business trips.

Like many executives, attending events and learning from others around the globe is a key perk of the job. Not to mention it’s instrumental when you are leading a global team. Travel is often a highlight for my year, and with the world finally seeing some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, my hope is that it will make a return (of sorts) in 2022.

But consider my latest experience a warning to founders and other executives: while COVID-19 is in the headlines all travel will be risky.

I travelled from Dublin, Ireland to Melbourne for a three-week business trip last month. Securing approval from the Australian border control was complex, it took several weeks and as every week passed, flights became scarce and more expensive. However, we still deemed it a worthwhile investment as being on the ground was of paramount importance to our business.

Earlier this year we finalised a merger between CurrencyFair (headquartered in Dublin) and Zai (formerly Assembly Payments, headquartered in Melbourne). Mergers and acquisitions are challenging under the best of circumstances, they are filled with uncertainty for people and that has been compounded by the greater uncertainty of living through the pandemic. Having someone from our leadership team physically in the country was important for demonstrating our commitment to our team, our customers and our business in Australia.

A risk worth taking

I was willing to take the risk of travelling despite the emergence of Omicron, and as (un)luck would have it, inbound traveller restrictions were introduced 36 hours before I departed Ireland. The flight could not be changed without a significant cost outlay and cancelling entirely meant no refund; the flights had been extraordinarily expensive to begin with. The information that was available before I departed was clear that I would need to self-isolate for 72 hours when I arrived, however, the real uncertainty was not knowing what might change while I was in the air.

When I did land in Melbourne, just before midnight on November 30, I was met with very welcoming and empathetic airport staff, but they were completely starved of information or clear instructions from the government. I relayed to the airport staff that I could self-isolate but I was met with shrugging shoulders and directed to the mandatory hotel quarantine queue. Hours later they checked me into a hotel for my 72 hr quarantine after which they handed me my detention notice and asked that I read it carefully in my hotel room. I did read it, in detail, and it verified that hotel quarantine only applied to those who could not self-isolate in alternative accommodation. I immediately alerted the authorised officers who apologised profusely for the mistake made at the airport.

I spent the next three days trying to unwind the situation which I soon learned was impossible.

Once you are in detention, untangling the red tape is a quagmire. I was unable to meet my team or attend client meetings that week and the accommodation I had arranged became an unused sunk cost, not to mention the cost to the Australian government to ‘host’ me. The hotel room did not have a desk or chair (it was too small to fit either), so working on the bed for three days did take its toll. The saddest thing is, it was an unnecessary situation.

The only silver lining is that I was lucky enough to only have to do three days in quarantine with this arrangement. I know others in my sector have done the full two weeks working in a shoebox. And Australia is not alone in this approach; unfortunately, similar situations are happening in Ireland and elsewhere.

However, had I known in advance that I would be in hotel quarantine for 72 hours (wrongfully or not), I still would have travelled. It has been worth it.

The future of business travel

Not all travel is created equal; business travel by nature has a more complex set of considerations. Even before COVID-19, the impact on the bottom line and carbon footprint considerations already had us looking at extended trips to minimise the need for multiple flights in a year. Plus, business travel is a two-sided affair, it requires the people we are meeting (whether clients, partners or colleagues) to be open or able to meet in person.

The re-adoption of business travel will track a different curve to leisure travel. The early re-adopters are taking advantage of the downward pressure that has been put on travel prices. But what will really tip the scale of re-adoption is when companies start to feel that they are at a competitive disadvantage by not travelling.

What excites me is how this will spur innovation in how we meet non-virtually. For those making stops in multiple countries, how might airports facilitate airside-landside meetings for instance without the need to ‘enter’ a country? Airports have already become a destination for shopping and entertainment but have not yet stretched to accommodate business travellers beyond the typical business centres and lounges.

Would I recommend fellow executives to travel right now? Yes, but make it a considered decision.

Develop a minimum viable travel strategy. It does not need to be exhaustive but should cover traveller risk management and duty of care; consider what is acceptable risk and what is not, for example specify what vaccination or infection rates are tolerable before approving travel. Consider working with a corporate travel management agent whose job it is to know what travel policies are in place as they change.

Lastly, getting insurance is wise but most insurers will only cover cancellation costs if you actually contract COVID-19 but will not cover costs if regulations or travel restrictions change. The irony being that when it comes to travel insurance, it pays to get the virus.

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