I’ve lived all over the world, from downtown Buenos Aires to the high mountains of rural Asia, but I still gawk every time my flight prepares to land. In Addis Ababa, you’re surrounded by rolling, green, Ethiopian hills; in Istanbul, the city sprawls for as far as the eye can see. But three weeks ago, I was finishing up the transpolar route from Hong Kong to Seattle, where I’d catch a glimpse of the sylvan suburbs cozied up next to Puget Sound. My trip to Seattle was to meet and research a manufacturing company for whom I’d be writing some privately-commissioned profile pieces with Storied. So there I was, flying halfway around the world to visit people I’d never met, and it sparked two questions. Is such long-haul business travel still common in the age of the Internet? And if so, is it necessary?
The numbers alone answer my first question with a resounding affirmative. According to data from the Global Business Travel Association, annual business travel is expected to increase 25% between 2013 (the last year for which data is available) and 2018, from $273.7 billion to a whopping $341 billion. Asia will grow at the fastest pace, eclipsing 10% annually, with China sitting above 15%. Even more impressively, Oxford Economics reported in 2013 that every dollar companies invested in business travel during the recent recession returned $9.50 in revenue and $2.90 in profits, an extraordinary return when nearly every other investment was pointing toward the red.
This is something I’d seen firsthand with my business class concierge clients. In 2017, our largest clients took an average of six more international business class flights than they did in 2016. Our three busiest routes in 2017—Hong Kong-New York, New York-London and Hong Kong-London—saw an even larger percentage increase in traffic over the past twelve months, and it’s not difficult to figure out why. Many of our clients are consulting firms, creative agencies and other innovators who benefit directly from visiting their own clients in these global financial hubs. They’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on such flights, so the savings make a substantial difference.
Yet what about everyone else, those who don’t necessarily need to visit their clients but still choose to? For starters, nearly half of businesspeople say they’ve lost a contract or client due to not having enough face-to-face meetings, and that doesn’t include those who haven’t realized it was the reason for their defeat. Most of the information we communicate when speaking is done non-verbally through facial expressions and body language, but that’s lost entirely on the phone and largely when videoconferencing. The black mirror is great for pecking out emails and Googling to your heart’s desire, but it’s still no replacement for dinner in the heart of bustling London or the boardroom meeting overlooking Central Park.
As my week of on-site interviews and research approached its end, I began saying my goodbyes; though I had gathered my information in just five days, writing the agreed-upon pieces would take several months. “I’m so glad you were able to make it here to Seattle,” my main point-of-contact told me over our final lunch. “I’m really not sure how we could’ve done it otherwise.”
She was right, of course; there’s simply no way we could’ve managed without me being there in the flesh. Yet even if we could’ve managed—through no small feat of videoconferencing and time zone taekwondo—I’m certain that I wouldn’t feel as close to her and her colleagues as I do now. We wouldn’t’ve met for breakfast downtown. We wouldn’t’ve made time for jokes with no punch line and stories with no ending. We wouldn’t’ve bonded over the moments of calm, when the work was on pause and we could both take a deep breath.
Despite what we may tell ourselves, many of the “objective” business decisions we make are the direct result of their beneficiaries’ likability. You can point to the importance of trust, or cite that teams with good chemistry perform better, but at the end of the day, the choice really comes from the gut. We all want to be surrounded by people whose company we enjoy, and the best way to discover them is to meet them face-to-face. More and more, it’s becoming clear that business travel is far from an unnecessary expense. It’s an investment, and when you invest in it wisely, it’s one that’s almost certain to pay off.