After grinding to a near halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, business trips—and profits for hotels and airlines catering to higher-paying corporate clients—are bouncing back even beyond pre-pandemic levels, per a recent survey from Morgan Stanley Research.
Despite higher airfares and room rates, the survey of 100 global corporate travel managers found that many respondents believe their company’s travel expenditures are already back to pre-pandemic levels and will continue to grow. The biggest demand is coming from small companies, which means lower-cost airlines may benefit the more than their bigger peers.
“Travel budgets are expected to see a noticeable improvement in 2022, with 2023 nearly back to ‘normal,’” says Ravi Shanker, an equity analyst covering North American transportation. “Most interesting is that nearly half of the respondents expect 2023 budgets to increase versus 2019 overall. And of those that expect an increase in budgets, the majority believe 2023 budgets will be between 6% to 10% higher than 2019.”
Overall travel budgets show an improvement over previous surveys, with 2023 budgets expected to be 98% of 2019 levels on average.
- Smaller companies lead demand for corporate travel. More than two-thirds (68%) of companies with under $1 billion in annual revenue expect travel budgets to increase next year, versus just 41% of companies with annual revenues over $16 billion. Similarly, 32% of smaller companies said travel budgets had returned to pre-pandemic levels compared with 23% of big firms. “This trend could likely favor low-cost carriers, as smaller enterprises tend to be more localized and require less long-haul travel,” says Shanker. “However, the legacy carriers with strong corporate exposure should see gains as well.”
Nearly a quarter of both large and small companies say their firms are already back to pre-COVID travel levels, and 34% anticipate a full recovery by the end of 2023.
- Airfares are higher, but that’s not a drag on bookings. On average, corporate airfares are expected to be about 9% higher than pre-pandemic prices. “Clearly the expected increase in corporate airfares is not having a major impact on corporate travel as passenger volume is expected to be basically flat versus 2019,” says Shanker.
- Room rates will continue to rise, though not as fast as they have recently. As of this October, market room rates had spiked 20% to 25% over 2019. Next year they will rise even more, though by an average of just 8%, say respondents (9% in the U.S. and U.K.; 5% to 6% in Latin America, Asia and Africa).
- Hotels face economic and competitive headwinds. While overall travel budgets are growing, companies are cutting costs by trading down when it comes to accommodations. (Historically, budget hotels outperform upscale lodging in tough economic times.) Alternative sources of accommodation also threaten traditional hotels, with 31% of respondents saying they intend to use short-term rental services in the next year.
- Virtual meetings aren’t going away. Almost 18% of corporate travel will be replaced with virtual meetings, falling slightly to 17% in 2024, suggesting a degree of permanence in the shift with companies recognizing the benefits of virtual meetings ranging from cost savings to lower carbon footprints. Expect companies providing collaboration software to gain from this shift.
Courtesy Morgan Stanley. Article available here.