International business travel begins to spring back

Zoom calls can’t replace face-to-face meetings where clients get hands-on with product.

By David Flynn, November 12 2021
International business travel begins to spring back

November 1 was a milestone for Australia’s long-grounded international travellers stuck behind borders that had been closed since March 2020.

Finally free to leave the country and to return without entering quarantine, thousands of fully-vaccinated flyers took to the skies out of Sydney and Melbourne during the first ‘freedom week’.

And while the initial overseas surge was led by families and loved ones looking to reconnect, there were also business travellers eager to once again meet clients face-to-face clients after almost two years of Zoom and Teams videos calls.

One of those was Ben Bartlett, managing director and co-owner of Melbourne-based 4x4 accessories specialist Saber Offroad.

November 1 saw Bartlett flying off to Las Vegas for the annual AAPEX and SEMA trade shows, which set the stage for a global automotive aftermarket industry worth $65 billion.

“For us, these are the largest industry shows of their type in the world” Bartlett told Executive Traveller at Sydney Airport.

“We were actually supposed to be there exhibiting, showing off our Australian product, but we had to cancel about six weeks ago because we thought we couldn’t make it over.”

Ben Bartlett: 'Nothing beats sitting across a table from somebody.'
Ben Bartlett: 'Nothing beats sitting across a table from somebody.'

The mid-October announcement that international travel would be permitted without quarantine changed all that, and Bartlett was quick to book a flight to Vegas via Los Angeles – even snaring seat 1K in Qantas’ Boeing 787-9 business class.

“It’s too late for us to exhibit but we can still get over there, meet people and do the sort of things that we would like to be doing.”

From Melbourne to the world

“Before Covid, 90% of our business was export, so I was flying out of the country every six weeks,” Bartlett adds – and he doesn’t expect the dramatic surge in video calling to change that.

“Nothing beats sitting across a table from somebody showing your product and getting to know their business.”

“One of the other problems with Zoom is that people give you 30 minutes, or maybe an hour, and that’s your timeslot. But when you’re there with them, they’ll give you as much time as they can and they’ll even make extra time for you.”

Also bound for Vegas and the AAPEX/SEMA events was Mark Luksich, who works in the aftermarket parts industry.

“I jumped on these flights pretty quickly,” Luksich told Executive Traveller.

“The show started on Tuesday November 2, so when flights opened it was ideal timing.”

Like Bartlett, Luksich’s pre-Covid travel schedule saw him flying “every four to six weeks to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, just about everywhere.”

Luksich described video services like Zoom as “frustrating and limited” in what they can achieve in a very hands-on industry involving hard product.

“It can’t replace the true relationship with customers and suppliers.”

However, he expects to trim his international trips in the short term, explaining that “the idea of going to Vegas is also to try and reduce some of the travel I’ll need to make next year by meeting a lot of people in the one place.”

Strategic trip planning post-Covid

While Bartlett and Luksich jetted to the USA, Anthony Williams was on his way to Europe for a whistle-stop tour of clients, suppliers and other industry contacts.

“I’ll be visiting a half dozen countries, a few dozen people and doing a lot of long overdue lunches and dinners,” the IT sales consultant told Executive Traveller ahead of his flight from Sydney.

This sweep of the UK and Europe – mainly conducted on Star Alliance airlines and armed with Gold-grade frequent flyer status – will also allow him to “focus on a US trip early next year and by the middle of 2022, hopefully, Asia.”

“I’m usually on an international business class flight every month, but I’m going to try doing a few slightly longer trips to see everyone I need to in a single go,” he explains.

“Right now the cost of travel is still high, not just the airfares but also the Covid testing. I’m sure that will change next year, in fact it’s got to change before business travel gets back into anywhere near high gear, but right now I can only plan for what i know.”

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