With travel costs set to rise, companies should start viewing business travel as a calculated investment rather than a general expense.

There’s a new buzzword doing the rounds in business travel circles and it’s ‘purposeful’. According to those in the know, we should all be bracing for ‘an era of purposeful business travel’. At first glance, this concept rather assumes that up until now we have all been embarking on business trips without ‘purpose’, but bear with me while I explain.

Last year, in this column, I referred to a white paper from American Express Global Business Travel entitled, ‘Why business travel is the centre of the new company culture’. That paper made the case that business travel should be seen as a strategic investment in people rather than a cost to a company. Travel industry consultants, Festive Road, who coined the ‘purposeful travel’ term, have now produced a ‘Purposeful Travel Model’ to go along with it, through which they invite participants to move to a new way of thinking about business travel. They challenge the old assumption that business travel is an unavoidable cost to the company and the planet and propose we replace the default of ‘jumping on a plane’ with an approach that identifies a professional and personal purpose first and factors in the various virtual meeting options as well. This would also take more consideration of employee wellbeing and sustainability and ensure that business travel is seen as an investment with a return, not just a cost.

Finding your purpose

Having been both in the business of selling business travel and a business traveller myself, I can see the advantage of this; we may need to start looking at business travel in a very different way. During my years selling airline seats to corporate clients, I have sat next to ‘road warriors’ at many a dinner who are falling over themselves to take me through their travel plans for the next quarter. They feign horror at the need for them to make four separate trips to New York over the next three months, while quietly drooling over the tier points they expect to rack up and the admiration of their peers. It’s true that business travel has been traditionally viewed as a status symbol and an ‘indicator of busyness’. It’s also no coincidence that airlines refer to their Gold frequent flyer luggage labels as ‘vanity tags’.

Howewer, the journey to purposeful travel is more nuanced than my disrespectful caricatures. The new model is designed to analyse trips by type and determine what purposeful travel means to your organisation. Of course, you don’t need to listen to airline advertising to know that there are other factors at play here. It is true that if you’re not travelling to see your clients, your competitors may be, since your clients may expect face to face meetings. It is also true that business travel can be very effective in supporting corporate values in a world where it is increasingly difficult by means of a traditional office environment. So purposeful travel will mean different things to every company, but 88 per cent of Festive Road’s respondents stated that they already have or intend to adopt a ‘purposeful’ approach to travel within their organisation.

Offsetting rising costs

This call to make business travel purposeful does chime with other trends being seen in the industry. We know that millennials, who now represent over 50 per cent of business travellers, are less likely to accept punishing travel schedules. In addition, flight and hotel prices are forecast to rise by more than 8 per cent year on year in 2023 (according to the 2023 Global Business Travel Forecast produced by CWT and the GBTA). These increases are on top of an estimated 48.5 per cent rise in air fares, 18.5 per cent increase in hotel rates and a 7.3 per cent rise in car rental charges this year on last. Business travel is going to become more expensive as demand catches up with supply and suppliers wrestle with large increases in costs, not least manpower and fuel.

Finally, and needless to say, many companies are aiming for net zero carbon emissions and their travel programme will often be a significant element of that. So maybe it is time to look at the purpose of your business travel and check that your travel is fit for it.

Richard Tams is an airline consultant and executive coach