Even before the pandemic, there have been dire predictions about the demise of business travel — principally because technology has eaten into the case for face. Now, the pandemic has taken the place of technology as the main reason for the death of business travel in the time of Covid-19. Maybe it’s one of them, maybe it’s both.
Or maybe, neither.
For years now, companies have made an effort to institutionalise remote working or WFH (even if “WFH” is clumsy and does not roll easily off the tongue.) That alone, brought business travel to a crawl.
This saw a dramatic increase in Business Class fares. (The economics of charging more for a small but inflexible demand, like being gouged for math tuition for one’s kids.)
But not every business can work off Zoom or Meet. Tales of companies losing business for the reason they did not bother to meet clients face to face, are legion.
For one, people who sell — to the last person — will tell you they prefer a phone call to a WhatsApp message and a face to face meeting to an online meeting.
There’s something looking your business associate in the eye and, even subconsciously, studying their body language and the way they cross their legs, if you like. Being face up with someone is quicker to build trust.
Face to face builds a better measure of a person than wondering if they are wearing pants.
Ergo, business travel is not dead.
Once people have cause to fear Covid less and once government restrictions ease, business travel must come back to its pre-Covid troubles — which seem better than the post-Covid troubles in the new normal.
So what is the new normal?
First, corporate travellers must navigate travel restrictions. Every country has its own quirky way of deciding what’s best for everyone.
Speaking of quirky, Richard Quest, CNN’s Business Editor, whose show Business Traveller is a hard-to-beat magazine on the corporate travel industry, was both cautious and upbeat in an interview with Conde Nast.
He told the magazine that he thought the crisis was not an existential threat to the industry and that “we will get used to it”. But he also said that it was impossible to tell which way things could go and how quickly.
Although the common wisdom is that there is no common wisdom and no one knows which way is up, there are things one must know about setting out and battling the balls of Covid-19.
Find out everything
For one, it’s a good idea to find out everything about requirements at your destination, your home country, and any transit stops. Restrictions vary widely and can change frequently.
(Sometimes every city has its own rules. In Bangalore, India, the authorities disregard the Covid test certificate a passenger carries, even if they got it just before the flight departure. They insist on a new test for all international arrivals. Recently, passengers from Dubai were upset at being made to take new tests costing about $35, when they had just paid about $135 for a test before leaving Dubai.)
Your own country’s restrictions may prevent you from travelling abroad as well. Some countries’ governments are prohibiting their citizens and residents from leaving the country. Even countries that allow citizens to leave may strongly recommend avoiding travel. Some countries have suspended passport renewals and visa applications; even where passport and visa processing continues, it is likely to be delayed.
So the common wisdom is to find out everything you can. Ask the airline, Google it and do whatever you can to make sure you don’t have nasty surprises at the airport.
This is a great resource: https://www.iatatravelcentre.com/world.php. Click on the country and it gives you destination information. It’s fun to do even if you’re planning to go nowhere.
But a last word to the wise, mind the documentation. You don’t want to be stomping around Gdansk Airport in search of an internet connection and a printer.
Other than making sure that you protect yourself — from all accounts, common sense is your best PPE — wear a mask, wash your hands and stay socially distanced.
Frequent travellers will find that the environment for travel is changing. The rules that were put in place during the boom years — surge pricing, catch as catch can profiteering, share prices first, customers last attitudes have all taken a beating in these lean times.
There is an entire generation of employees and, we reckon, decision makers in the space who have no idea what an economic downturn is and wear the expression of a dog reacting with fear to Deepavali firecrackers.
Check for flexible booking and refund policies. Demand it.
The travel industry will change to fit the compulsions of the now reduced market.
For one thing, flexible booking is bound to come back. This is what travellers want and have longed for. Strictures on cancellations and penalties for changing flights will be a thing of the past, unless of course demand creeps back up returning airlines to their creepy ways.
Airlines will no longer profiteer from passengers who are forced to change their travel dates. Likewise, refunds, hopefully no-questions-asked refunds, will come back.
Skyscanner, a really resourceful travel site, says that if travel restrictions ease up or get tighter without warning, it is important that passengers should not be penalised. The good news is that airlines have already started using flexible booking policies.
Business travellers should keep this in mind and go ahead and get snippy with travel industry providers
Take travel insurance and take it seriously
Travel insurance was never taken seriously and considered only by the very cautious. Well, the pandemic is making everyone very cautious, keeping in mind non-refundable flights, accommodations, and deposits and there have been substantial losses. Recently, industry watchers have noticed a trend towards a greater importance placed on insurance and indeed, individual travellers are seeking out insurance options. Companies are increasingly making this mandatory.
But if one is not careful — such as not noticing that a change in plans includes flying into an affected area (whatever that means) — the insurance might not be valid. Because Covid-19 is now “a pre-existing event”, insurers might be able to deny claims.
Watch what you do on board the plane
On a plane, follow the same hygiene practices that you would elsewhere, like washing hands frequently, or use alcohol-based hand sanitiser if it is not convenient to leave your seat, wear a mask, and avoid touching your face. Before sitting down, use disinfectant wipes to wipe down the area around your seat. Don’t wipe a cloth seat, as the moisture can make transmission easier.
Airlines are taking steps to reduce transmission and keep passengers safe. These include cleaning facilities more frequently. If a group of passengers is connecting from an area with a severe outbreak, the flight attendants make arrangements to seat them away from the rest of the passengers (and if you were recently in a high-risk area, consider telling the flight attendants for this reason).
You will be prohibited from changing seats on the flight. In case, if someone on the flight turns out to be infected, the authorities can track down the people who were sitting near them for testing or quarantine.
Know where to get help
If you have any symptoms for coronavirus, call a hospital or local emergency medical services instead of going in person to avoid infecting others. Mention your symptoms and travel history. Wear a medical mask and follow the instructions of authorities and doctors. Don’t try to self-medicate with unproven treatments.
Note: most phones have the facility to call local emergency services. Make a note of how.
Get consular assistance
As an Indian citizen the embassy or consulate might help. We say “might” because frequent travellers have long known Indian missions abroad to be rude and dismissive to Indians seeking assistance, unless they are well connected. Nonetheless, they might help and one should ask.
In An Emergency Before travel, get a list of numbers for Indian missions at the destination. Here is a starting point.
Consulate General of India, New York, USA
High Commission of India, London, UK
Embassy of India, Paris, France
Consulate General of India, Frankfurt
Embassy of India, Tokyo, Japan
High Commission of India, Singapore
Embassy of India to Italy
Embassy of India, Moscow
Embassy of India, Abu Dhabi
Dos and Don’t
Wear a mask in public in areas where transmission is widespread, and especially where physical distancing isn’t possible.
Open windows of rooms and vehicles when possible, for good ventilation and airflow.
Frequently wash your hands with soap and water, and then dry your hands on a clean towel. As coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, washing your hands with soap kills the virus by disrupting the mostly fat-based viral envelope. Effective hand washing requires rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Drying your washed hands physically removes some germs from your skin (so don’t skip that step, and don’t share towels).
If soap and water are not available, then use 60% alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Alcohol is a quick germ-killer, but it is not quite instant, so this still requires the same 20 seconds of rubbing your hands together, making sure that every single scrap of skin gets wet, and then you have to wait about another minute, for the alcohol to completely dry.
Cough and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue, and then immediately throw away the tissue and wash your hands.
Clean objects and surfaces that a lot of people touch, such as doorknobs, phones, and television remotes with regular household cleaner. Disinfect the surfaces with a suitable disinfectant, such as diluted household bleach.
Stay home when you are sick, and avoid contact with other people until your symptoms are gone.
Greet people without touching them. Avoid hugs, kisses, handshakes, fist bumps, and any other contact. If it’s impossible to avoid contact, then wash your hands both before and after.
Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth. Most people touch their faces every few minutes, all day long. Try to do this less, and try to wash your hands before touching your face. Also, try to avoid touching surfaces you don’t have to touch in the first place, at least with your bare hands.
Don’t stand or sit near people who might be sick. Stay at least two meters away.
Do not share personal items that come into contact with saliva, such as toothbrushes, eating utensils, drinks, water bottles, and towels.