Agency CEOs are leading the industry’s long-awaited return to work travel, saying it feels like being on cloud nine to be taking to the skies again, and getting to offices across the U.S. that they haven’t visited in well over a year to reconnect face-to-face with employees. Some are even meeting with clients.
With COVID-19 pandemic restrictions lifting across the U.S. and half of Americans ages 12 and over now fully vaccinated, many agency leaders are making their first business trips, or will soon.
“I was in Chicago last week, and I am going to be in Minneapolis this week,” says Edelman CEO Richard Edelman. “I’ve also been to the Washington office and will go to the Bay Area at some point over the summer.”
In addition to physical check-ins at offices, Edelman is meeting with clients.
“I went to see a client in Arkansas and am going to see clients in Minneapolis,” he notes. “It feels amazing, like everything has returned to normal. I even went to a White Sox game last week in Chicago.”
Andy Pray, founder and CEO of Brooklyn-based Praytell, boarded his first flight in more than a year this week to visit the firm’s Chicago office. He says he plans to “visit other offices soon, too. This is on the heels of hosting clients from out of town last week, which was a delight.”
“Thankfully, we’re seeing travel ease back into our work lives, mostly with this first wave of events. It feels like the next wave will be meetings with client partners we haven’t seen in a long, long time, particularly those with an experiential aspect to their business,” he says. “It feels like we’ll see pockets of new business travel, too, but it’ll be a bit before the norm for a pitch goes back to IRL.”
He suspects a new pitch model will emerge “that normalizes sending a few folks for the room while also having a broader team represented via video conference.”
Also getting back in the air is Scott Allison, chairman and CEO at Allison+Partners, who says, “I just booked my first business trip today. I’m headed to New York for the first time since January 2020. It’s really a catch up with the team there and seeing our new office.”
The firm let a lease expire on its office at Union Square in spring 2020 and set up a new post in One World Trade Center in December.
“I’ve also just had my first request from a client for an in-person media training next month,” adds Allison.
Still, he suspects the return of business travel in the U.S. “is going to be very gradual,” noting “not too many team members are venturing out yet,” and will likely gain significant steam in the fall. Allison notes, “we’ve not yet had a requested new business pitch that called for a face-to-face meeting, but again, I could see that happening by September.”
While business travel is back in the U.S., CEOs say it will be some time before the rest of the world opens up. Echoing a sentiment shared by the top brass, Allison says “international travel will be a wild card,” and doubts “it will happen this year, but maybe late fall in Europe, with Asia being more restrictive.”
Jen Prosek, managing partner and founder at Prosek Partners, took a client team out for dinner at a restaurant this week in Manhattan’s West Village. She says her firm has had three or four teams travel for pitches, including to Texas three weeks ago and to Atlanta.
“In-person new business meetings have come back probably quicker than I expected,” says Prosek, acknowledging that may be specific to the financial sector, the focus of her firm. “I would say the sector has been an early adopter in terms of getting back to work the old way. About half our clients are vaccinated and in the office, which means they are interested in meeting with us in person.”
However, she hopes that business travel won’t be as demanding as it once was.
“Pre-pandemic, I was on an airplane two times a week, every week. It was ridiculous,” says Prosek. “So I hope for myself and my colleagues that we think very hard about whether an air travel meeting is necessary. Hopefully, clients and teams will be more tolerant and open to even being asked the question, ‘Can we do this over a Zoom?’”
The airline industry is seeing business travel return to life, but slowly. Corporate trips are 70% below pre-pandemic levels, according to The Wall Street Journal, though most companies say they will return to work travel this year. Some hospitality executives are pessimistic, with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky telling CNN that “business travel as we knew it isn’t coming back the way it was.
That’s something of a welcome sign for some top agency executives. “I do think that kind of crazy business travel life will be cut in half,” Prosek predicts. “But things like new business development, in which you inherently want to really get to know a team, showing up for those things in-person will be critical.”
Even as top agency executives get back to the hustle and bustle of packing overnight bags and planning trips around unfamiliar cities, other agency employees may not have to worry about security lines and finding travel-size toiletries for some time. It could take a few months before agency employees in general start making business trips like they once did. As top executives explain, their firms are still finalizing return-to-work policies, and many staff remain at home for work or have only just returned to an agency office.
“We are eager to return to travel,” says AnnaMaria DeSalva, global chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, via email. “At this point, we continue to follow WPP guidance and we are also tracking with our clients’ policies. Nothing is more important than the safety of our people and clients. So we are not traveling regularly yet.”
While Pray feels energized by reconnecting with people and partners he’s “dearly missed or never met in person,” he says his firm has no expectation that staffers must travel for work, if they have reservations for whatever reason. Nor is he feeling any such expectation from clients.
“For now, folks have been incredibly respectful and cautious, ensuring ultimately it’s the choice of the employee as to if they want to travel or not, with zero fear of consequences if they aren’t comfortable making the trip,” says Pray. His eponymous firm is in the midst of finalizing policies for employees about return-to-work, including business travel.
Like Pray, Prosek says staff are under no obligation to travel if they don’t want to.
“We’ve obviously told people if they have any level of discomfort that those of us who do not can take care of it,” she says. “But the majority of our people are double vaccinated.”