Travel in 2021 will probably look very little like it did in 2019. How will it be different? It's not yet clear, though some themes are emerging.
By now, much of corporate America has concluded business travel may be on the decline, not just for the short term, as the country grapples with Covid-19, but for years to come, with more firms adjusting to videoconferencing.
It’s a view shared by Christa Quarles, former CEO of OpenTable. In a wide-ranging discussion Friday with Skift CEO Rafat Ali, Quarles said what many business travelers know as normal may never return.
“We might be looking at a permanent haircut,” she said. “Tech companies have always known what is possible in a remote structure. Now, every other company is going ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was possible.’ This idea of ‘I’m going to go to New York and get on a plane and come back in 36 hours,’ I think that is going to be done remotely now.”
Less consensus has formed about leisure travel. There’s little doubt many Americans want to return to vacationing, but it’s not clear how they will travel this summer and beyond. Will they fly or drive? Will they take pure leisure trips, or stick to visiting friends and relatives?
“What is vacation anymore?” Quarles asked. “The idea of vacation before was, I was going to stop work, I’m going to spent some time with my family, and relax. Well, I am spending way too much time with my family now.”
As a result, she suggested travelers might crave social interaction on vacation now, more than before.
“We are also seeing people want to come together as multiple families or with people they know or trust and are happy to be around, and they are going to rent a house together,” she said. “They are rethinking what the moment of leisure actually looks like.”
What About Restaurants?
As companies navigate changes brought about by Covid-19, Quarles said the largest firms with the biggest balance sheets have the most opportunity. They will be able to invest in new technology, such contactless payments, that customers will demand.
But she said restaurants, which are generally not well-capitalized, are likely to struggle. She noted that many states, when they open up, are limiting how many people can sit in a restaurant at a time.
“That does not work, at all, for the economics of how a restaurant works and operates,” Quarles told Ali. “So much of what OpenTable was trying to do was trying to push as many people though in a given time window as possible so you could optimize the profitability.”
She said neighborhood restaurants likely will be hardest hit.
“It is pretty drastic and devastating what has happened,” she said. “It is going to take awhile in particular for these types of businesses to recover.”
For more, including Quarles’ views on the future of full-time work, the gig economy, and corporate diversity, watch the interview.
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Photo credit: Travelers walk underneath Chicago O'Hare International Airport. Nick Harris / Flickr