Hopping on a plane for a one-hour meeting in another country used to be commonplace for agency executives, but the pandemic rapidly replaced in-person travel with video conferencing.
As vaccination rates slow down in the U.S. and the delta variant spikes, agencies are reassessing business travel, evaluating whether video chats can permanently replace some in-person meetings. Video conferencing allows agencies to pack in more client meetings, meet easily with team members and clients around the globe and schedule catch-ups with minimal advance notice.
According to TSA Travel numbers, business travel is still 70% below pre-pandemic levels, despite an uptick in overall flight volumes in June, as COVID continues to be a concern in areas across the globe.
But, adland is still itching to travel. According to a Campaign US Twitter poll, more than 66% of respondents are ready to fly, 16.7% want to fly but not quite as much and 16.7% are on the fence. Notably, no one voted that they are against traveling for business again at all.
While most people are eager to pack their bags, the pandemic has shifted agencies’ business travel priorities — perhaps forever.
Less frills, more substance
Gone are the days of flying to another city or country for a quick meeting and then leaving on the same day.
“There was a time a few years ago where I flew to China for a meeting and then flew back home,” Greg Hahn, CCO and co-founder of Mischief @ No Fixed Address, told Campaign US. “I was there less than 24 hours. I don’t see that happening anymore.”
Mischief@No Fixed Address, which hasn’t resumed business travel, has been having internal conversations about how to make meetings more productive for both the agency and clients, without the fanfare.
“Everyone had gotten used to day-in and day-out trips, where you go in for one meeting, and a lot of song, dance and jazz hands, sandwiches on the credenza with a three-hour flight on either end,” Kerry McKibbin, partner and president of Mischief @ No Fixed Address, said.
Instead, Mischief plans to focus on productive meetings that help both the agency and clients understand each other.
“Business travel we focus on in the future is relationship-building, with clients either coming to the agency and workshopping things for a few days, or us being immersed with them, sitting in the marketing department at a client’s office,” McKibbin said.
Bigger isn’t always better
As agencies head back to the skies, many aren’t prioritizing the size of a client or a pitch, but rather whether the agency and client can get the most out of a face-to-face meeting.
“It’s not about the size of the client, but what the opportunity looks like, and how meaningful that would be if it’s in-face interaction versus not,” Stephanie Nerlich, chief executive officer North America, Havas Creative Network, said.
Some of Havas’ clients have requested in-person presentations, but participation is on a voluntary basis. “We’re not making anybody get on a plane unnecessarily,” Nerlich said. “Everybody has to volunteer for jumping on an opportunity like that right now.”
Pereira O’Dell, which resumed business travel in June, is also not giving bigger clients preferential treatment for travel. The agency is making “important” meetings with long-standing clients a high priority for in-person interaction, but isn’t pressuring anyone who doesn’t feel safe to travel.
“We’re making sure that all of those meetings have an app and access to covering it over Zoom,” Natalie Nymark, president of Pereira O’Dell, West, said. “Even if someone doesn’t go, they can still contribute over Zoom.”
The Delta variant, however, is putting a wrench in future business travel plans as it rapidly spreads across the globe. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the variant can spread “as easily as chickenpox” in both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
Pereira O’Dell is responding to Delta by only allowing its vaccinated employees to travel.
“We’re being hyper aware and trying to be a little bit more cautious and making sure that it’s a critical meeting somebody has to travel for and not just something that’s like, ‘Hey, we want to meet in person again,’” Nymark said.
Earlier this year, Maine-based creative agency Via started allowing clients to visit its office and on-set production shoots. As the Delta variant looms, the agency plans to assess whether to pause travel in September, when schools start opening, and children under 12 could be at risk of getting infected and exposing others to the virus.
“We have to be conscious of parents, keeping schools open and keeping the kids who can’t get vaccinated healthy,” Leeann Leahy, CEO of Via said. “Last year, the kids lost so much. And it was just an impossible task to be a teacher, the parent and the employee. We’re trying to avoid that from happening again.”
Judith Carr-Rodriguez, CEO of FIG, spoke with Campaign US after coming back from a business trip to meet a new client. FIG has resumed business travel, but Carr-Rodriguez thinks the Delta variant might delay adland’s conferences and festivals.
“I know our industry is keen to get back things like Cannes because of that human connection and sociability of shared purpose,” Carr-Rodriguez said. “As soon as everyone feels like it’s safe, those things will happen again. But it may be a bit too soon [right now].”
Follow the money
Despite the uncertainty, large agencies are anticipating a return to business travel long-term.
IPG reported during its Q2 earnings call that “expenses for travel, meetings, office utilities and the like will begin to return in the second half of this year, most notably in Q4 and of course into next year.”
But holding companies are also anticipating continued savings as the nature of business travel changes, leading to positive effects on their bottom lines.
Omnicom, for example, stressed the importance of a hybrid workforce during its Q2 call with an emphasis on “developing practices, particularly with respect to travel, that should allow us to continue to retain some of the benefits we achieved in addressable spend.”
According to Havas’ Nerlich, “we’ve learned you can be more efficient with our operational dollars by not having excessive travel costs.”
But advertising is a relationship business at its core, and travel is still essential — and worth factoring into the budget.
“It allows you to have social context into somebody’s life and connect as human beings in a different way than we can ever replicate on Zoom,” Nerlich said. “Zoom has taught us empathy, but it’s allowed us a one-dimensional picture into somebody’s life. It hasn’t allowed us to create those real, meaningful connections, because our business is highly human interactive.”