At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many wondered if we’d ever travel for business in the same way as we did pre-pandemic. After all, if you could attend a conference or a meeting with international partners from the comfort of your own home, why would you travel halfway around the world to do so?
Research seemed to back that thinking up too. Some predicted that global business travel would never return to 2019 levels. Others suggested that recovery would be sluggish and that it would take until 2026 for things to return to pre-pandemic levels. But as restrictions eased and countries around the world opened up again, business travel bounced back in a big way. For many players in the business sector, nothing beats the boots-on-the-ground approach that business travel offers.
That’s especially true for South Africa. In fact, a white paper released by Corporate Traveller reveals that, by the end of 2022, business travel in the country had exceeded 2019 levels. Knowing that, what can we learn from the bounce-back? And what trends are likely to dominate business travel in 2023 and beyond.
SMEs lead the way
One of the big revelations from the Corporate Traveller white paper is that much of South Africa’s business travel recovery was led by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In part, the report says, that’s because they don’t have the same rigid guidelines as corporates do and were able to return to travel quicker.
But there may be other reasons for SMEs leading the way too. Some, for instance, may have given up their offices to go fully remote. Their employees may also have joined the semigration trend and moved to smaller towns for a better quality of life and lower property prices. But even the team members from fully remote companies need to get together from time to time. And when they do, they want the experience to be as memorable and productive as possible.
Quality over quantity
As such, they’re likely to opt for quality business travel experiences over quantity. And as corporates start to open up their travel budgets again, they’re likely to follow suit.
That renewed emphasis on face-to-face interactions, coupled with a shift in focus to ensuring that those interactions are of as high a quality as possible, tracks with the experience of Anton Gillis, CEO of the Kruger Gate Hotel. Situated at the entrance to the Kruger National Park, the hotel features a range of event spaces and meeting rooms, along with enough room capacity for 255 guests.
“We’ve definitely seen a growth in business travellers looking for something a little more special,” says Gillis. “It makes sense too. If you’re only getting together or organising big face-to-face events a few times a year, instead of every month, then why not go for somewhere where everyone can get an amazing experience instead of an airport hotel or an urban conference centre?”
A good example of this is the hotel’s executive retreat package, which offers small groups of up to 10 people an exclusive venue to conduct their strategy session. More specifically, the Nkanyi Presidential suite includes a lounge, indoor and outdoor dining and meeting areas, and exclusive use of a pool. That means groups engaging in the experience get to do deep work, without interruption, during the day but experience the best of both the hotel and Kruger National Park in the early morning and in the evening.
Searching for sustainability
As impressive as the bounce back in business travel’s been, there are still obstacles it will have to overcome in order to keep growing. As a report by Deloitte points out, one of the biggest of those obstacles is sustainability.
“As travel climbs back up from its pandemic lows, it will soon begin to push against companies’ sustainability priorities,” the report says.
It’s therefore critical that business travel destinations do everything they can to ensure that they’re as sustainable as possible. That doesn’t just apply to the environment but to the communities surrounding them too.
“At Kruger Gate Hotel, we want business and leisure travellers alike to be able to stay with us and witness the majesty of the Kruger National Park’s wildlife for decades to come,” says Gillis. “That’s why we’re committed to sustainability and actively participate in several industry sustainability programmes.”
Additionally, we are committed to helping make the surrounding community more sustainable,” he adds. “One example of this is the investment we’ve made in a local primary school, where we helped fund and equip a brand new computer centre.”
Adaptability is critical
Ultimately, what all of these trends show is that while South African business travel may be back to pre-pandemic levels, it doesn’t mean that players in the space can revert to a business-as-usual approach. Today’s business travellers are more forward-looking and are seeking out unique experiences that minimise their impact on the planet. It’s up to the business travel destinations and operators to adapt and meet those expectations while also keeping an eye on where the sector’s next evolutionary leap is likely to come from.