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How do you solve a problem like... the return of business travel?

How should agencies approach the return of business travel?

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week, we’re discussing how advertising businesses are navigating ethical and financial issues around the re-introduction of business travel.

The Cop26 climate summit has brought the costs and ethics of business travel to the fore of public debate, as activists, politicians and diplomats raced to reach Glasgow by private plane, train and yacht.

As travel restrictions ease up around the world and agencies reclaim some of their old habits, will we see a return of the airborne executive, or will regular business travel be a thing of the past? Has your agency sanctioned regular travel again, or are staff still grounded? And, air fares aside, are agencies aware of the cost to those traveling in fatigue and exhaustion, or of the toll on the environment?

How do you solve a problem like... the return of business travel?

Fiona McNae, chief executive officer and co-founder, Space Doctors

Lots of conscientious organizations will already be recycling and reducing waste, partnering with ‘green’ service providers and operating using a clear diversity and inclusion policy. Limiting business travel must also be a part of these actions.

The pandemic will have revealed to some businesses just how possible it is to do things differently – for example, reducing travel unless absolutely necessary, or rethinking the way in which travel happens, for how long and with what objectives.

Going forward, this means replacing in-person meetings across the globe with new, better ways of achieving the same outcomes – workshops that deliver an even greater impact than before, with zero carbon footprint.

Ben Essen, chief strategy officer, Iris

The fact is that many networks have already committed to reduce emissions to net zero by 2030. On average, air travel makes up around 60% of that total. So saying ‘no’ to air travel is the only option (bar the 5% that can be credibly offset).

We created the ‘Carbon Kickback’ to incentivize our clients to come with us on this journey and continue the digital global working best practice we’ve established over the past two years.

But in a competitive industry, it only works if we all do it. So please, everyone, let’s stand firm and keep our feet on the ground. There are smarter ways to work now.

Anant Sharma, founder and chief executive officer, Matter of Form

When we don’t go and experience a client’s offering, we’re subject to the skewed opinion of those in the boardroom. We get an aspirational sense of their audience and brand, but often it’s not representative of their core product and where their true revenue comes from.

So we do still travel to see clients – you have to live and breathe a client’s product or service to uncover the nuance of a brand and move business forward. Our clients are fun, smart and enjoy exchanging ideas – creating a forum for those ideas to be exchanged in person is important.

Kev Chesters, strategy partner, Harbour Collective

Quite simple really. Don’t fly anywhere unless it’s absolutely necessary. And if it is, limit flights to one team member. As was proved during the pandemic, 99% of the meetings that involve business travel don’t actually need to happen in real life. Most of them would work just as well over Zoom, and in fact quite a few could be done over email.

We won and completed three large client projects last year without ever meeting IRL, and I recently delivered a project for a client in Hong Kong without leaving my spare room. It’s just how we do things now.

Susan Pratchett, managing director Europe, Virtue

As a borderless agency it’s vital that we stay connected with colleagues and clients abroad. We now know we can cover way more over Zoom than we ever thought, but the pandemic has also helped cement how truly important face-to-face sometimes is.

So travel isn’t gone, but it does look very different. Just like the reinvention of the office, it’s now about balance and quality of outcome rather than for the sake of it. We’re reconsidering each trip and making sure it becomes truly additive rather than assumed, and the environmental impact measured and considered.

Jason Cobbold, chief executive, BMB

Technology allows us to stay hyper-connected, but not all communications thrive this way. Human relationships drive our business; if this calls for face-to-face and requires travel, business trips won’t disappear overnight.

But given the environmental costs of frequent flying, it’s vital to eliminate minor and unnecessary trips and fly in/fly out city stopovers, with more time spent at airports than the destinations. Days of accumulating meaningless Avios points are long over. It’s now time to recalibrate business travel. Consider the genuine human benefit of travel and, if flying, organize your time and combine meetings, thereby traveling less frequently.

Want to join the conversation? Email sam.bradley@thedrum.com to join next week’s debate.

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