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Companies tired of Zooming with clients expected to drive a resurgence in business travel, but omicron variant looms

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Many road warriors’ suitcases and passports have been gathering dust since the COVID-19 pandemic brought business travel to a halt.

That’s not the case at Chicago-based Devbridge, which hosted an all-hands event in Lithuania earlier this year and brought teams from Toronto, London and Lithuania to its Chicago office last month to workshop new products with clients.

The technology consulting firm’s 650 employees are spread across global offices and spent about 20% of their time on the road before travel restrictions were imposed in early 2020.

“The moment those were lifted, we had teams flying and visiting clients,” said co-founder and President Aurimas Adomavicius, who expects the company will eventually return to “business as usual” when it comes to employee travel.

“In-person collaboration for high-performing teams for us isn’t optional. It’s necessary,” Adomavicius said.

Corporate travel has been especially hard-hit during the pandemic, as people are quicker to plan vacations than business trips, especially as employers delay reopening offices amid a new wave of infections this fall. The emergence of a new highly transmissible variant, omicron, has added uncertainty about the timing for a broader return to business travel. Just last week, the U.S. imposed new restrictions on travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region.

 

Travel companies say they’re confident road warriors will eventually return, but that doesn’t mean every company’s workers will hit the road as often as they used to. While companies like Devbridge say they’re eager to get back to their globe-trotting ways, others realized they didn’t need to be on the go as much while stuck at home during pandemic lockdowns.

“It’s not just automatically jumping on a plane for an hourlong meeting, it’s proactively working with clients to say, ‘How can we best use our time together?’ ” said Stephanie Nerlich, CEO of Havas Creative Network for North America.

During the first year or so of the pandemic, the advertising agency, which has about 350 employees in Chicago, did almost no travel because clients weren’t asking for it, Nerlich said. Some began requesting in-person pitches again over the summer, and she still thinks it’s the best way to build relationships. But she’s skeptical employees will be on the road as frequently as they used to be.

Havas and its clients are trying to be more thoughtful about when travel is necessary — for instance, replacing multiple short visits with a longer, more productive session, she said. Limiting travel reduces costs and will help the company hit its goal of being carbon neutral by 2025.

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