Reflecting on 2021

As the year comes to an end, I thought now would be the time to reflect on 2021 and look forward to 2022. Although the end of the year has thrown some curveballs to the business travel industry, I think we can hold our heads high and be proud of how we have managed those challenges.

Business travel in 2021

2021 started off with hope, despite starting the year in lockdown. We had an awful experience in 2020 so naturally we were hoping for better in 2021. I think a lot of people don’t really understand the full impact the pandemic has had on business travel. Throughout 2020 we were all a bit naïve about the situation, we believed that this would all be done in 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 8 weeks…then another 8 weeks, it just kept getting extended.

In 2021, business travel started off at the lowest of the low, but as borders started to open up towards the last quarter of the year, we definitely saw a difference. The update of the US opening their borders made the whole industry ecstatic! But I think the more recent events like the last-minute closure of South Africa and other African countries made us all realise how fragile any uplift is that we have. We are ending it in a better place with a certain level of optimism but nonetheless a lot of hesitancy, we didn’t want to be knocked down again.

What our clients wanted

The demands are certainly different to what they were pre-pandemic. The main demand from clients was, understandably, about the duty of care. It’s about understanding what’s going on and ensuring that they weren’t going to go somewhere and not be able to return or get stuck abroad.

The latest guidance is very difficult for us to keep on top of as it all changes so fast, without our support our clients would really struggle with this. Because of the guidance always changing, the confidence in business travel has dropped. If you want to go on holiday that’s fine, you don’t have to justify that to anyone as long as you keep to the rules. Business travel is different as companies have a duty of care to its employees, so it has made it really hard to let them travel.

How the pandemic has hit our industry

In short, business travel has been absolutely decimated. As much as we appreciate some of the systems in place, like for example furlough which has been fantastic, our business isn’t like other businesses. We still have to keep our systems live when everything is closed so we still have huge costs, we have spent hours and hours just doing refunds and exchanges. Things have started to get better recently but all it takes is another announcement or country closure to take us back down, for a while now it’s been one step forward, two steps back.

We have always tried to stay optimistic here at ANGiE and ABT-UK. My team were so excited to be back to work properly but events out of our control keep halting our progress. This pandemic is changing every day, the UK is now on other countries’ red lists, so it’s not just about what we are doing in the pandemic, it is also about what other countries are doing, it’s a two-way street.

Why business travel is so important

It is fundamental for businesses. Business travel is for many different things, it depends on what industry it is but for something like closing a business deal, staff training, implementing something new, businesses can’t do without business travel for these reasons. Business travel has been a major factor is the growth of businesses over the past 10-15 years, yes you can have remote working and some online meetings, but there are many occasions that just have to be face to face and that isn’t going to change.

Pre-lockdown, some people used to have a mindset of “I don’t want to travel today”. Lockdown has taken that choice away from us and we are now craving that social interaction, it is a human need to get out and be with others. I saw it in my team, the joy they got when they were allowed to come back together. We were working and communicating all the time but when they were allowed back in, I saw them glow and flourish again and that is what businesses are built on.

What 2022 holds for business travel

If you asked me this question a month ago, I would have said by the end of 2022 we will be in the right direction to be back to where we were pre-pandemic. With the recent setbacks, I don’t know if this is now the case. I have to believe that business travel will be going in the right direction, that the world will start to have adjusted to, and it is a term that I have hated since the pandemic started, the new normal.

I don’t like that term, using it as early as April 2020 seemed very pessimistic, but there does have to be a new normal. We have to deal with the virus and recognise it, we need to look at it as something that we can handle. We are going to have more variants in 2022, I just hope we aren’t just shutting down at a moment’s notice as we need to be able to offer our clients that reassurance.

The fact that our clients want to be allowed to travel again gives us the confidence that it has to get back to where it was. Some things will stay for a while, maybe the masks and some testing. It would be great to see some sort of global agreement on what this could look like but that is very farfetched, not one country cares about what the other is doing, we need to be working together.

I am trying to decipher what I want for 2022 and what I think is realistic. I believe we will be on the up, I hope we come back with a bang in the new year, but I do think we will have some speed bumps in 2022. We can’t be in a worse position, because if it was worse, we wouldn’t have an industry left.

Final reflections

I really do believe that this time next year, things will be much better. We will know more about where this is going in 2022 and hopefully, we gain a bit more confidence in travelling. I can’t wait to get on a plane again but firstly we need to get our clients back doing their thing, we need to get them back to doing business that they need to travel for.

Cilla Goldberger,

Managing Director of ANGiE and ABT-UK.