With new information available and recent developments around COVID-19, we are providing some further insight on the subject of business travel since our last post on the subject in back in February of ‘21. As members of Mercator Advisory Group’s Commercial and Enterprise Payments Advisory Service will know, we have been keeping a close eye on the impact of COVID-19 with regard to commercial payments in general. Commercial payments activity typically bears a somewhat close relationship to overall economic growth trends as measured by GDP both regionally and also within individual sovereign markets. However, the travel and leisure industry (among others) has taken especially hard hits during the past 15 months, which continues to the present. The Global Business Travel Association’s (GBTA) 2021 BTI report suggested that 2019 business travel levels would not return until late 2024 or into 2025 (see chart below). This looks to be fairly accurate in the 2021 timeframe since international travel remains minimal.
Nonetheless, when one looks at the ‘dependencies’ for business travel recovery trajectories, there may be some signs that support a more optimistic view. One of these indicators is that the vaccinations that are approved and in circulation are having a substantial impact. To the extent that vaccinated populations approach 40% of citizenry, there are large reductions in new cases. In the U.S., 40% of citizens were vaccinated as of April 20 and the number of new cases has dropped from about 80,000 per day to 23,000 as of Jun 1.[i] These results have caused even the most draconian lockdown states and cities (i.e.; New York) to begin reopening. The UK has the second highest vaccination rate after Israel, and the remaining major European country vaccination rates have substantially improved during the past few weeks, so intraregional travel is expected to jump during the coming months.[ii] Another harbinger of change is a return to in-person trade shows. In the U.S., Money 20/20 will return to an onsite event in Las Vegas during October 24-27 and AFP 2021 will be a live event in Washington, D.C. November 7-9.
Other dependencies include business traveler sentiment and company duty of care policies. In a survey conducted among corporate travelers by Amadeus in Q1 2021, findings indicate that 87% of frequent travelers are eager to get back on the road, but there are some pre-requisites preferred, which fall into the duty of care type of scenario. This is where companies will have to step up and make the travel experience easier, and in some sense safer, for their employees. The following chart from the survey provides a view of returning traveler sentiment.
Source: Amadeus, Safer, easier and better, April 2021
Another sign of light at the end of the tunnel appears in the most recent GBTA member poll. Results from the May poll suggest that domestic travel will be increasing at a relatively high rate during the next three months, with international travel lagging. When comparing responses to the same poll conducted in February, which was early in the vaccination ramp-up period, these are fairly large changes, especially for domestic travel. There is also less uncertainty, with a large reduction in respondents that previously had no travel plans. We suspect that the opening of the Euro/U.S. travel corridor during the summer (based on vaccinations) will start shifting international travel attitudes even further. The Asian corridor will lag since vaccinations have not taken place at the same rate in China and Japan,[iii] two of the largest travel markets, so we expect more normalcy by Q1 2022.[iv] See the chart below for details.
Source: GBTA Member Polls
So in terms of corporate card spend, there is some reason for optimism as we move towards 2022. Based on industry conversations, the non-travel commercial credit card use cases are picking up some of the slack from anemic travel spend, stemming from their ties to the GDP and the economic recovery, the shifting of corporate card spend over to office supplies, and increasing supplier acceptance of cards for B2B transactions. We had anticipated this in our commercial card annual update in 2020. We will continue to track developments.
Please feel free to reach out for additional discussion on these or other commercial payments topics.