In order to bring back the business travel sector, the industry needs clear and consistent guidelines, said U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow during a Tuesday press conference.
“We have a patchwork of reopening protocols from state to state and city to city,” he said. “Business leaders really don’t know what to expect when they go to a different destination. We need to get a consistent look around the U.S. We also have some very outdated attendance limitations.”
With vaccinations and infection rates in the U.S. trending favorably, restrictions lowered, and traveler confidence rebounding, domestic leisure travel is projected to reach 99% of its pre-pandemic peak in 2022 and continue to grow steadily.
However, only about a third (35%) of U.S. businesses are currently engaged in any business-related travel. Business-related travel is not expected to recover its pre-pandemic volume for an additional two years.
According to a Tourism Economics analysis released Tuesday by the U.S. Travel Association, lingering COVID restrictions and a patchwork approach to reopening across the country will prevent the economically crucial business travel segment from recovering until at least 2024.
The [Tourism Economics] analysis shows that business travel could be bleak if we don’t do something immediately," Dow said. "Business travel was such a powerful section of our travel and U.S. economy and a major driver of our total economy. It contributed $791 billion to the economy in 2019 and was responsible for 5 million jobs. We need to look at how we can get it going faster. Domestic leisure travel is really doing well, but it's the business travel, group and meetings, and events that are so important."
Leading health care scientists at The Ohio State University also released a white paper that includes evidence-based analysis—focused on a scientific review of proven health and safety measures substantiated over the last year—showing that it is safe to return to conducting and attending PMEs (professional meetings and events).
“Getting back to our pre-pandemic ways of doing business must include taking evidence-based tactics we learned during the pandemic to keep people safe and healthy,” said study co-author Bernadette Melnyk, Ph.D., APRN-CNP, FAANP, FNAP, FAAN, Vice President for Health Promotion, University Chief Wellness Officer and Dean of the College of Nursing at The Ohio State University. “We must continue to follow the best evolving science as we make plans to hold in-person events again.”
“A thriving travel industry—and the broader U.S. economy—are dependent on the return of business travel and PMEs,” Dow said.. "Americans are eager to reconnect with colleagues in person, via business meetings, conferences, and conventions, and these scientific analysis and recommendations make clear it is possible and safe to do so.”
Dow continued, “A consistent approach to reopening PMEs, including guidance from the CDC that differentiates PMEs from other large gatherings, is critical to infusing confidence and optimism into this key sector of our economy.”
To support the return of professional meetings and events, a coalition of travel industry businesses and organizations, under the U.S. Travel Association umbrella, is also launching an initiative called “Let’s Meet There” to advance the full and safe reopening of the business travel sector. “Let’s Meet There” will be detailed at a press event in Las Vegas on June 16.
“As more American adults are vaccinated and pent-up demand for travel is released, it’s more important than ever that businesses and local, state, and federal governments recognize the role meetings and events will play in our ability to make a full economic recovery,” said Chris Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton. “By following CDC guidance and implementing common-sense safety measures, we’re hosting professional meetings and events in our hotels across the country and are confident that these important gatherings can happen safely once again.”
Nassetta said that while summer has kicked off strong Memorial Day weekend on the leisure side—the best summer in the history of the business, in fact—business travel is lagging in comparison. He estimates that for Hilton, the sector will not return to pre-pandemic levels for three years.
“As teams get back to work we need meetings and events to restart. I’m confident professionally planned events can be held safely,” he said, emphasizing using a layered approach.