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Is business travel dead? It’s a question that many executives are asking themselves going into the new year. We’re all so accustomed to virtual meetings and remote work that perhaps there’s no need to get on a plane and travel halfway around the world to meet someone. That’s especially the case when it seems a new COVID variant can pop out of nowhere and see countries shut borders in less than a week.

Executives aren’t too bullish about the future of business travel either. Earlier this year, Bill Gates — who among plenty of other things is a part-owner in the Four Seasons Resort chain — told the New York Dealbook conference that there will be a 50% decline in business travel in a post-COVID world. He joins a chorus of other airline and hospitality executives who cast a bleak outlook on the sector’s future.

But, earlier this year, I made my first long haul trip since March 2020, and it was a great learning experience. I flew from Dublin to Melbourne just as it was opening up for a business trip to meet my new team. This trip was planned to coincide with the launch of our new brand Zai, marking the completion of the merger of Assembly Payments and Currencyfair. 

Looking back on it, I’m not so sure the predictions will be as dire as many are portraying. The value of meeting my new team in person greatly outweighed any inconvenience of travelling during a pandemic. I see the value in tools like Slack, Zoom, and other communication services. But you still can’t quite beat in-person encounters.

Many founders and executives may be keen to travel but aren’t sure what it means for them. So I felt it would be useful to detail my experiences with it. 

It started with copious amounts of paperwork.

First, I had to overcome Australia’s travel ban. That required me to lodge my case for a critical business visit with the Immigration department. This meant applying for a SubClass 400 Visa, which required a detailed explanation of the merger, why the visit was important, and why it was crucial that a member of the Dublin executive team integrated with the Australian office. Then, this rationale also had to be approved by Australian Border Control, requiring further correspondence after the application was made. 

This was all before we even booked a ticket. A plane flight to Australia from Dublin cost roughly four times what you would usually pay. There was only one seat available on the flight, and I had to go onto a standby list for over two weeks to obtain it. Once the airline gave us the green light, we then had 24 hours to pay the fare, and I was on a plane three days later. Within those three days, a PCR test had to be booked.  I also had to complete a number of declarations and disclaimers required by the Australian Federal and Victorian State authorities.

The flight itself was fairly standard, aside from the additional COVID protections such as facemasks. The plane was eerily empty — nearly 80% of seats were empty. Also, the atmosphere throughout the journey was decidedly different from my previous experiences; there was no real opportunity to start ad-hoc conversations with staff or fellow travellers as most people are conscious of minimising the risk of COVID Transmission. This also reduces the opportunities to network during the journey, which can sometimes be quite beneficial.

But arriving in Melbourne airport, I encountered something that I’d never seen before in my years of travel: A completely empty arrival lounge populated by a small number of travellers with a larger number of Airport officials from many authorities all fully decked out in HazMat gear.

Hotel quarantine was also quite an experience, but I had researched it, so I went into the hotel room as well prepared as I could be. The best tip I found was to order fitness equipment to be delivered to the room; this helped chip away at some of the boredom. A lack of fresh air or access to the outdoors is quite a load on the body and mind, and it’s something you need to be prepared for. Your best bet is to work through with a routine that keeps you reasonably active and engaged while isolated. 

In my case, work filled a lot of my available time, so I didn’t have to resort to very much Netflix entertainment during my two weeks. But I could imagine for other categories of travellers (parents with young children, retirees, people not in a formal daily routine), the days could be quite challenging to pass away in such a small place. In my case, I had a one-bedroom and adjoining kitchenette and living room, so that provided enough space to have separate work and relaxation areas.

After two weeks and eight hours of quarantine — including 5 PCR tests and daily check-in calls with the Victorian Health officials — I exited the system to a very locked down Melbourne. The place was almost as quiet as the airport terminal, and traffic was almost nil.

I made my way to my accommodation, and from there, the rest of my trip was a lot more rewarding. It allowed me to meet many of our existing Melbourne Team members — within social distancing rules as they evolved — and I also attended the Zai Launch Party in November. This night was also the first time the team in Melbourne had gathered as a group in more than a year, so there was a whole lot of catching up to do.

There’s no denying that there were quite a number of hurdles I had to jump through in order to get to Australia. In my eyes, it was worth it. Many conversations I had over the four weeks post-quarantine (both social and work-related) have allowed me to get a much better understanding of how best I can help us collaborate globally across Zai and better serve our customers. 

But for others, it may not be.

That said, I don’t think COVID will kill business travel. I think forecasts that it may be reduced are measured, and the industry should prepare for fewer travellers rather than expect a complete rebound. But after just one trip, I feel like I’ve become an advocate for travel within our office.

Other Dublin-based Zai executives are making the journey across to Australia right now. Given the majority of Australia’s population is vaccinated, the journey will be easier for them than for me. But for any founder or executive out there considering business travel, I can say that it is still worth it. Video calls haven’t replaced it. You just need to work out what level of risk you can tolerate and try to mitigate as best you can the risks within your control while travelling.

Read more: Illuminate Conference 2021 – Here’s what leading Australian bosses predict about travel and economic recovery in 2022

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Phil O'Malley

Phil O'Malley

Phil is the Dublin-based Chief Information Officer of global payments technology company Zai. Phil held senior technical roles at Fenergo, Travelport Locomote and Dun & Bradstreet.

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