As vaccinations continue and the number of new Covid-19 cases drops throughout the United States, most of Europe and many other parts of the world, industry optimism has peaked that the worst of the pandemic is past and a return to business travel is, if not imminent, then at least feasible. With the United States all but declaring the pandemic over for those vaccinated and the European Union working to again open its borders to international travel, suppliers are beginning to see the contours of a business travel comeback taking shape, but for now, all eyes are on leisure travel.
The comeback of U.S. domestic leisure travel is “nothing short of phenomenal,” U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow said last month. Several travel suppliers have adjusted their expectations upward amid the leisure demand, and an April Harris Poll noted 77 percent of 2,097 U.S. adult respondents planned to travel this summer.
Yields for United Airlines domestic leisure fares sold in May for second-quarter travel exceed comparable 2019 levels, the carrier indicated in a filing last month with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, adjusting its earnings projections accordingly. Still, United noted, even amid the leisure demand surge, “business demand continues to be significantly depressed, though bookings for business travel are starting to recover.”
“There is no way we are going to bring back all those lost jobs unless we bring back business travel and professional meetings and events, and international, and that is all still pretty far away and a high priority,” Dow said.
He added that U.S. Travel also is calling on President Biden’s administration to take a “risk-based scientific approach” to reopening international travel and offer consistent messaging on professional meetings and events.
“There’s a very big difference between a professional meeting and event than a very large gathering,” Dow said. “When you have a professional convention or meeting, you can control the registration, the spacing between meals, and seating and all of those things. It’s a very controlled environment and safe environment.”
To that end, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month declared fully vaccinated Americans can attend indoor gatherings of any size without masks or social distancing, though masks are still required for travel.
Subsequently, the American Hotel & Lodging Association eased masking requirements for vaccinated guests from its Safe Stay hotel guidelines for Covid-19 safety, though some chains have kept them in place.
“At this time, we are not asking hotels to require proof of vaccination status, but we do ask that all guests and workers, vaccinated or not, respect and honor these revised guidelines,” said AHLA president and CEO Chip Rogers in a statement. “Unvaccinated guests should wear face-coverings and practice physical distancing at all times in public settings.”
Key to any resumption of business travel will be the easing of international border restrictions, and the European Union last month took a significant step in that direction, with ambassadors of the 27 member states agreeing that individuals who have received EU-approved vaccinations for Covid-19 should be allowed entry to the bloc. They also agreed to ease the criteria on what should be considered a ‘safe country’ from which all residents would be allowed entry. Still, these decisions must be formally approved by national leaders.
How each country will structure specific entry requirements remains to be seen. Germany, for example, last month updated its coronavirus regulations to allow vaccinated travelers and those with negative tests arriving from countries on its risk list to avoid quarantine, although people arriving from high-risk countries and those where variants of concern are circulating would still need to isolate for 10 to 14 days.
What documentation will be required is also not clear. According to the New York Times, EU officials are in discussion with the U.S. to determine whether the paper vaccination certificates issued to U.S. residents will be sufficient proof of vaccination.
“The European Union’s risk-based, science-driven plan to reopen international travel will hopefully spur the U.S. to heed the many calls for a plan and timetable to safely reopen our borders,” Dow said. “The right conditions are in place: vaccinations are increasing, infections are decreasing, all inbound visitors get tested or have to prove they’ve recovered, and it’s possible to determine vaccine status.”
He added, “The U.S. has been a leader in many aspects of managing the pandemic but is behind our global competitors in pursuing an international economic reopening.”
Business Travel Association chief executive Clive Wratten similarly used the EU move to push United Kingdom officials to do more. “The BTA welcomes the clear stance of the EU that will stimulate all forms of travel,” he said in a statement to BTN Europe. “We urge the U.K. government to introduce reciprocal arrangements for travelers returning from these countries.”
In the meantime, “our leisure business is up 30 percent to 40 percent over what we saw in 2019,” said Marriott International chief sales and marketing officer for the U.S. and Canada Julius Robinson, who also is a co-chair of Let’s Go There, a coalition of 75 travel companies and organizations created last September “with the mission of keeping travel on the minds of Americas even as traveling was virtually halted by the pandemic.”
“There are many reasons for” the leisure increase, Robinson said. “One, obviously, there is more occupancy available. As our business travel and group business have been down somewhat, it’s being replaced by an aggressive leisure community, and we’re very excited about that. And we anticipate those numbers to continue throughout the rest of summer and into early fall.”
The Harris Poll was commissioned by Let’s Go There and fielded April 23-25, 2021. Other findings from the survey show that 36 percent of respondents already have planned their trips and 30 percent have booked them. Of those two segments, more than half (53 percent) will be traveling for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
—Donna M. Airoldi contributed to this report.