Business travelers reflect on a year off the road

When his globe-trotting came to a halt early last year, Ryan Young saw the silver…

When his globe-trotting came to a halt early last year, Ryan Young saw the silver lining: He wouldn’t miss out on his 1-year-old’s milestones because he was away on business travel.

“I kind of was openly excited about it at the very beginning,” said Young, 36, who works in international development and used to take long trips to places like Bolivia, Colombia and Lebanon.

A year later, with no return to work travel in sight, his feelings have changed.

“It definitely has turned from a little bit of excitement to ‘God, I miss that,’” said Young, who lives in D.C. “I hope it comes back someday.”

With most business travel grounded for the better part of a year and a return to 2019 levels potentially years away, some former road warriors are relieved to be free of the grind. But others find themselves missing every little detail.

For Young, flying and staying in hotels are his favorite parts of travel, and he loves exploring, eating, going to bars and talking to locals. He is exceptionally good at sleeping on planes, or really “any mode of transportation.” And on some days, he loves doing absolutely nothing.

“There’s always, like, a day or two when you just sit in your hotel room, and it’s like the ultimate recharge. Your cellphone doesn’t connect to most things, your friends know you’re gone so they don’t invite you to go to things,” he said. “It’s just like a day to veg out and clear the mind.”

Evelyn Carter, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant from Long Beach, Calif., had a whole system worked out for her frequent business trips: expedited airport security memberships, a go-to Dunkin’ at Los Angeles International Airport, the water she bought specifically for flying.

“I haven’t had Smartwater for a year,” she said, though she just bought some because she missed it.

Carter, 31, who was typically in an airport three times a week, misses other parts of travel too, like racking up airline miles, creating routines in the cities she frequented, catching up with friends on the phone in the backseat of a car, or watching “random TV shows” early in the morning at the hotel.

“I’m really behind on my TV shows, quite frankly,” she said.


Evelyn Carter during her first international business trip in Tokyo, in 2019. (James Gilmore)

As president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association, Michael Jacobson is nostalgic for his old travel life for personal and professional reasons — hotels have been hurting from the lack of business travelers. In his previous job for the U.S. Travel Association, he said he traveled almost weekly for eight straight years.

“I never got sick of it,” he said. “I even miss the airline delays and sitting at the airport.”

His current commute takes him past Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, where he finds the sight of planes sitting on the tarmac “actually depressing.”

“When I’m on a plane, I’m in my happy space,” he said. “I put my headphones on, I never connect to the WiFi. I just usually watch a movie, take a nap or listen to music.”

Those laid-back pleasures are hard to come by these days, he said. “Working from home, it’s not even 9-5,” Jacobson said. “It’s 8 to 8 with no breaks in the middle.”

For some early-career workers, the lack of business travel has been a huge letdown.

Kadrie Lamin, 25, of D.C., has gotten to travel a bit for his work as a media strategist at a public relations firm; he’s gone to Philadelphia and New York, stayed in hotels, and expensed meals. But he had been looking forward to more, and he was eager to apply his experiences to his own professional development.

“I’m glad I was able to get a glimpse of it,” he said. He was supposed to have a packed trip in February of 2020, but it was canceled because of the still-early threat of the virus. “It’s one of the perks of the job that make the work worth it,” Lamin said. “It made the work so much more rich.”

Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard lecturer, business executive, consultant and national security analyst for CNN, has traveled frequently enough to have a favorite scenario. She gets to a hotel and orders room service. Her favorite choice is french fries and a Caesar salad, paired with some silly movie.

“I would have never viewed that as a luxury before, but God do I miss it,” she said. “I’m talking to you literally as my dishwasher is begging to be emptied.”

As much as she misses the comforts of being away from home, Kayyem, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., said she has realized how much she can get done without leaving. She has started working with new clients remotely when, in previous times, she would have flown out to meet them.

“You do get a sense that a lot of the travel was probably unnecessary,” she said.

She expects companies and customers to question the need for business trips in the future — and she will ask herself whether she really needs to travel as well.

“Is it really worth it?” she said. “Because it’s not like the risk is going to be completely gone by the end of 2021.”

Business travel has been hit hard by the pandemic: The Global Business Travel Association estimated that global spending dropped to $694 billion for 2020, a deep plunge from $1.4 trillion in 2019.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has predicted that more than 50 percent of business travel will go away. Airline and hotel executives have offered their own takes. In a forecast, the Global Business Travel Association said it expects a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels by 2025.

“The reality is no one has any idea right now,” said Chris Anderson, a professor in the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. “We really have no idea what business travel is going to look like and at what level it will come back.”

One factor, he said, will be cost: “It’s not like companies are going to be in super flush financial positions as we start to recover.”

Dave Hilfman, interim executive director of the Global Business Travel Association, said the group recognizes that many companies will take their time to get employees back on the road and change some practices.

“In the end, we always know that business travel is critical to establishing long-term successful relationships, whether that’s with clients or your own colleagues, and that nothing replaces that human connection,” he said. “We are social creatures, we want to be together and you can’t do that over a camera in the long run.”

Carter, the consultant from Long Beach, isn’t sure when she’ll be back on the road, but it will probably take widespread distribution of vaccinations.

“I’m used to leading workshops with 50, even 80 people, sometimes more in one room,” she said. “I don’t see a world where that happens for a while.”

She and her husband have brought home two dogs and a cat since early March 2020, and lately she is focusing on decorating her home office in a way that makes her happy.

“When you’re working from home a half-day every week, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Jacobson, in Illinois, has planned his first business trip of the new era — to the state capital in March, if legislators meet.

“The moment can’t come soon enough to actually hit the road again,” he said. “We’re all kind of clamoring for the celebration party.”

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