Why Zoom won't replace business travel

Video calls have their place but computer bytes aren't a long-term substitute for travelling brains, says Harvard University.

By Chris C., August 18 2020
Why Zoom won't replace business travel

Throughout 2020, remote working and video chats have largely become the norm. Most business travel was halted in response to the global COVID-19 outbreak, and further clamped down by a series of border closures and travel restrictions.

Meanwhile, remote meetings via the likes of Microsoft Teams and Zoom have made many question if business travel will ever fully return to the shape and scale of pre-pandemic days.

However, research published by Harvard University this month suggests that business travel will remain in the ascendancy because of its ability to spread ‘knowhow’.

Knowhow is different to “information and codified knowledge that exists in books, computer files, graphs and algorithms,” the Ivy League university shares.

Instead, “knowhow only exists in brains, and moves very slowly from brain to brain through years of experience.”

“Moving knowhow quickly involves moving brains,” and that’s where business travel comes in – and will remain strong, Harvard believes.

Business travel builds economies

Beyond the expansion of ‘knowhow’ across the globe, payment card data supplied by Mastercard and analysed by Harvard also demonstrated that business travel had a positive impact on GDP in both travellers’ origin and destination countries.

The data showed that if Australia stops sending business travellers abroad – as it’s now largely doing by way of closed borders and travel bans – this would most heavily affect New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, the United Arab Emirates, Philippines and Sri Lanka, in that order.

In fact, Australian business travellers heading overseas are responsible for 0.09% of total global GDP.

While that number may not sound significant, it places Australian travellers just behind those from Singapore and China in terms of global economic worth.

Australia itself also heavily benefits from inbound business travellers from overseas.

When international borders are open, Australia’s share of the inbound business travel market is disproportionately large compared to Australia’s population size.

By analysing the same data, the researchers at Harvard claim that Australia’s economy is 9.6% larger than it would have otherwise been if business visits were more closely in line with population, as they are in many other parts of the world.

Of course, with Australia’s borders remaining closed, inbound business travel remains at a practical standstill – and with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggesting it’s “unlikely” the country’s borders would re-open before Christmas, many internationally-focused businesses will be strapping in for a bumpy ride.

Also read: Australian border closure, travel ban to remain until 2021

Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Mar 2014

Total posts 204

The key for word missing here is "Budget"....I know a lot of companies (mine included) are not planning to return to pre covid travel spending with zoom etc and locally based staff making up the shortfall


13 Sep 2013

Total posts 115

Like many businesses, we're desperate to get people back in the air and on the move. Not having our team across the globe hurts the bottom line. 

There's only so much Zoom can do!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Jul 2011

Total posts 60

I'm curious - what industry you work in that requires a team across the globe?


13 Sep 2013

Total posts 115

Legal - Almost entirely cross border work. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 Mar 2019

Total posts 23

Any international organization or business requires a global team

26 Jun 2020

Total posts 8

Doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to travel though..


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 943

You need to spend money to make money, expansion not contraction of businesses. The businesses that get out there quickly will be the winners post covid, zoom just doesn't cut it when it comes to making money.

29 Jan 2020

Total posts 33

Have there been any reports of zoom meetings being hacked?

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 527

It's possible, but the same could be said about email. Most people's business meetings held on Zoom (or Skype for that matter) are not important enough to be hacked by anyone. Unless you're working for ANZ or Qantas or some big multinational then chances are, who would know about your meeting to make it worthwhile to hack it and for what purpose?

I'm sure 95% of us on here don't work for such large corporations or in high level managerial positions where this would be a concern. For the other 5%, maybe.

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 527

I say it depends on the industry. There is always going to be some business travel that requires face-to-face meetings and in-person inspections of products, manufacturing processes, meeting clients etc. Therefore, I think a certain amount of business travel that is considered non-essential, will be relegated to the likes of Zoom, but for all the rest, whenever unrestricted business travel is allowed to resume, it will be back with a vengeance. That being said, i think it's probable around 25% of business travel will be cut.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

15 Aug 2016

Total posts 4

It was a novelty to start with then as time goes on Zoom/Teams meetings become less frequent and communication lessens. I have found even email traffic has fallen. Connection issues, cameras and microphones turned off by participants says to me they are not as effective as we think. Humans are social beings and face to face is required. You may just need to justify the value post COVID19.

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 527

I wouldn't call it a novelty. Skype has been around for years, as have mobile phone based chat applications where you can have a live conversation with other person(s) - i.e. video chat. People who have cameras and microphones turned off are obviously not well versed with technology and should either learn the ropes or not participate in such meetings.

Of course face to face business meetings are essential for many types of corporate business activities. They usually involve lunches and dinners to get acquainted with each other; you don't just travel overseas to hold a half hour meeting in an office and expect to close a deal. Especially in Asia that won't fly - without a meal, drinking session or sometimes a bit of "hanky panky" (depending on your hosts!) forget it. I also expect that from business partners and will of course take my guests for dinner when I'm the host. Even in dealings with westerners (say with Americans) I would find it rather rude and strange to not be offered to be taken to dinner by my hosts. I would interpret it as a sign of cheapness and look upon such behaviour negatively as a red flag and thus look elsewhere to close a deal.

That said, in these times Zoom and Skype, as well as chat applications like Line, WeChat, Kakaotalk and Whatsapp have been a lifeline - email is OK but you need to be able to see the person and talk; written communication is not the same as spoken and usually no one wants to spend an hour either composing or replying to an email; but they may be happy to spend an hour chatting via video call.

In the longer term, borders will need to re-open, but right now things are vague and looking rather pessimistic in terms of rebooting normal unrestricted travel. I'm praying this corona crisis was just to scare us and we'll be going back to normal eventually, but I fear we won't be. Covid testing, the Covipass, travel vaccines, special medical exams before travel, thermal temperature screening (as in China since 2003, but this time worldwide), the permanent spectre of quarantines if the authorities deem you as being "infectious" or "sick" will ensure that both business and leisure travel may never rebound to pre 2020 levels.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Nov 2016

Total posts 14

Teams, Zoom etc are ok up to a point.

But nothing beats the level of communication and understanding you can have from a face to face meeting.

It really is that simple.

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 527

That's true, but it's not that much different. Of course, there many non verbal queues you can get from a face to face meeting that you can't quite see as well during a video call, but seeing people by video call (especially if it's people you've previously met in person) is not all that different.

I speak with family and friends using face time all the time, and there are no differences with holding an in person conversation as we can read each other's expressions and understand each other perfectly well.

Eventually we are going to have to go back to normal (unless governments have another idea) but for now Zoom, Skype and other technology has been a blessing. If this had happened 20 or 30 years ago we wouldn't have had any of these possibilities; it would have been email and chat apps involving typing like ICQ only.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

07 Dec 2015

Total posts 53

Teams / Zoom  has changed the way business people communicate and in my view, will absolutely change travel patterns and budgets.

What COVID has done has forced the faster adoption of these collaboration platforms and in my opinion, they work and have changed the business travel landscape and scrutiny of said travel forever.

I’ve had access to multiple AV/VC technologies inc Skype, Teams, Polycom etc for many years. Adoption was generally low albeit for the most basic of comms types but I’ve seen a massive shift and I’d argue that collaboration has actually improved both internally and externally.  The tools have also got better over time. Far less clunky and much more user friendly 

Sure, business travel will come back but my bets are that the alternatives have now proven themselves to be largely very effective, much cheaper and possibly improved productivity. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Sep 2016

Total posts 28

Totally agree with the above my company we require extensive overseas and national travel in design & development - industry. 

It is imperative to ensure client relations face to face is key; as example above from comment “regards to entertainment and dining in Asia” is key in building rapport and sign off on projects. 

Inspections on products and large production of materials furniture, facades etc is IMPOSSIBLE on zoom, Skype etc! 

Physical in person, meetings reviews and approvals are key! There is no way we could carry on any projects without international travel, domestic for the above measures. 

Including face to face pitches etc come off far better face to face and usually are a make or break... especially with laws in China, Asia and other countries it’s impossible sometimes to make these links work properly. 

However agree some interstate travel and certain meetings don’t need face to face interactions and we already have started to review this; but likely will only be a small percentile change / reduction.

Now we just need - Cost and the economy to improve, which is the next battle and keeping positive (optimistic! and proactive to changes in the market) apologies I digress.... 

Keep safe all and hope you’re able to keep working and eventually flying again.... 

12 Jul 2013

Total posts 22

My two cents... Zoom and other solutions work well until the offices begin to open. Once the offices open and teams starting coming back together, it will be easily revised that the person you are dealing with is not in the same location. And that is when people will want to work with people. So for roles in sales, I agree, Zoom and other tech will not replace travel. Yes, approval from management may have more scrutiny, maybe travel class will become cheapest fare of day, maybe business class travel approvals will not be granted.... but yes, travel will commence...

Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Why Zoom won't replace business travel