As a result of the pandemic, some believe business travel has changed for good. (Stock image)

On the Road (in the Air) Again

I went on a business trip last week.

In normal times, that wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But these are hardly normal times.

I’m in the travel industry. As CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport, it’s my job to promote our airport – and the magnificent, thriving region it serves – with airline executives, travel industry colleagues and business leaders around the world, from Dallas to Dublin to Doha.

I spend a lot of time on the road. But like everyone else, I’ve been grounded by the coronavirus pandemic. In March and April, COVID-19 brought airports and airlines to a virtual standstill across the globe. In Pittsburgh, we watched our passenger numbers plummet by 95 percent.

Christina Cassotis became the CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport in 2015. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Are business travelers coming back? There’s much talk in my industry that business travel has changed, possibly for good. Zoom, WebEx, Skype, GoToMeeting and other video conferencing tools have enabled face-to-face communication among people, groups and teams.

Are these improved video technologies better than a phone call? Yes. But are they robust enough to fully enable the world’s work? I don’t think so.

And that’s why I took the business trip.

A colleague and I asked for a dinner meeting to check in with leaders at one of our airline partners. They accepted. We flew there. We wore masks for the entire journey: in our own airport, on the flight, in our destination airport, in the rental car we shared to the hotel, in the hotel’s public areas and in the restaurant until we were seated at an outdoor table which was 15 feet from any other table and attended by a server who also wore a mask.

I’m happy to report the airports were exceedingly clean and the airplanes were sanitized and ready to fly. Everyone wore masks and observed social distancing. My industry has really stepped up, and I was proud to see it for myself.

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One of our airline colleagues said it was the first in-person business meeting he had attended in four months. “Same!” we said.

And with that, we exchanged our stories – personal, professional and organizational. We talked about how much we miss travel, how our kids are faring, and who is thinking what about schools in the fall.

Then, one of the airline executives said he had a hard stop in one hour. “So, what is it you came here for?” he asked. And because I love direct, transparent questions, I dove in. We spent the next hour talking about the issue at hand. They asked questions; we agreed on some points and disagreed on others.

As we prepared to leave, everyone remarked about how refreshing it was to meet in person, and how our discussion would not have carried the same expediency and trust had we met over Zoom or one of the other platforms.

Video calls work well when relationships are established and when communication styles are known. They can even help to grow and deepen relationships.

What did the old commercial say about the telephone? “The next best thing to being there.”

That’s true. Today’s video meeting capabilities are impressive, but they remain the next best thing. Face to face, when possible, is still best.

Calling my family from the other side of the world to say good night will never be as good as being there to hear about the day, help with homework and give a kiss goodnight.

I’m under no illusions. People have bigger things on their minds right now, and rightly so. Hit hard by the pandemic, businesses will work to keep their people safe and, given the state of economy, to save on travel expenses for as long as they can. Many road warriors aren’t ready to get back out there yet.

But make no mistake, business travel will come back, sooner for some than for others. Technology helps, but it will never be enough to satisfy the need to pick up the live visual cues that make for the most effective communication, for getting deals done, and for solidifying relationships that lead to long-term value.

My industry – the travel industry – is working hard to make people who need to travel now feel safe and secure, confident to walk through an airport, get on a plane, rent a car and stay in a hotel.

We’re going to figure this out. And when we do, the country will get back to business, and business travelers will start flying again. At my airport, and at all the other airports around the country, we’ll be ready to welcome them back.

Christina Cassotis is CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport.

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