Exactly what we gain by going back out on the road

·14-min read
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21: Iván Duque Márquez, President, Republic of Colombia and Sam Jacobs, Deputy Editor, TIME Magazine attend the 2021 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 2 at Sheraton New York on September 21, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 21: Iván Duque Márquez, President, Republic of Colombia and Sam Jacobs, Deputy Editor, TIME Magazine attend the 2021 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 2 at Sheraton New York on September 21, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

I’m on the road again, though with all due respect to Willie Nelson, I’m not sure I just can't wait to get on it.

This is about business travel of course and more specifically going to conferences, conventions, and the like. So yes, I’ve been getting back to that old familiar routine of airports, airplanes, hotel rooms, endless days, and very little sleep.

What’s it like to be a road warrior after an 18-month hiatus? Exasperating at times, never mind exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. You cannot overestimate what we gain from in-person, face-to-face interaction, (even if it is masked). It also feels strange, normal, completely different, and the same-old, all at the same time. (How could it be anything but?)

Over the past few weeks I’ve just been to two events and will be attending two more in the coming weeks, including Yahoo Finance’s own All Markets Summit on Monday, Oct. 25, (tune in here), and then the Web Summit.

Of course, I’m not alone. Millions of business people across the country are revving their engines. And you can see that as evidenced by this calendar from the convention capital of the world, Las Vegas. Sadly you’re too late to go to Marijuana Business Daily - MjBizCon 2021, with Daymond John giving the keynote. That one ended yesterday and was positively buzzing (sting here), according to a friend who reports that it was “as nuts as CES used to be.” Not to worry, Amazon Web Services re:Invent 2021 (at the Venetian) and Cowboy Christmas 2021 are coming up in November and December (of course), respectively. (Music to Penn & Teller’s ears.)

Some events are being executed successfully, like The Black Women’s Expo in Chicago and Code Conference, which “needs no introduction. It's where Kara Swisher holds the power players of tech accountable in signature unscripted Red Chair interviews.” (Elon knows.)

Some have been less successful, like the Bitcoin 2021 conference in Miami back in June where some attendees tested positive for COVID-19 after the conference, according to CNBC. The event did not mandate masks or require proof of vaccination, CNBC reported. Then there was the debacle in February 2020 at a Biogen conference in Boston, which a scientific study has linked to as many as 300,000 cases of COVID. The worst.

That’s why with events like COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow coming up next weekend, the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in January, organizers are being super careful. Hybrid and all-virtual events are still very much in the mix, and those in-person events have all manner of COVID protocols, which I’ll get into shortly.

John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, speaks at the 2021 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., October 18, 2021. REUTERS/David Swanson
John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, speaks at the 2021 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., October 18, 2021. REUTERS/David Swanson

But remember too, some companies are not so anxious to send their people out on the road for a number of reasons. Leaving aside lingering and legitimate health concerns, there are also budgets and climate to consider.

Google reportedly saved $1 billion a year by having its employees work from home, much of that savings coming from almost zeroing out what the bean counters call “T&E” (travel and entertainment). Send your people back out on the road, and your spend goes back up. And what’s the return on investment there really? More on that later too.

As for climate concerns, Time Magazine reports: “Even if the pandemic ebbs, companies looking to become more environmentally sustainable won’t likely go back to the same volume of travel as before; corporations like Zurich Insurance Group AG, Bain & Company, and S&P Global have announced plans to cut business travel emissions in the next few years, with Zurich aiming to reduce emissions by as much as 70% by next year.”

Bottom line: “Corporate travel programs are being totally revamped to incorporate trade offs that companies are willing to assess and evaluate,” says Nicolas Graf, a professor and associate dean at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University, who is organizing the NYU International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, which will take place in Manhattan early next month. “Companies are increasingly questioning not only the cost side of sending people to most meetings but also the carbon emissions that go with them, especially air travel. It’s going to be a long and slow recovery.”

Having said that, there will be pressure on companies to reboot business travel as it’s such a huge part of the economy. Here’s an Associated Press report from Sept. 9:

“A lot is riding on the revival of in-person meetings. Prior to the pandemic, conferences and trade shows generated more than $1 trillion in direct spending and attracted 1.5 billion attendees annually around the world, according to the Events Industry Council, a trade group."

The group hasn’t yet calculated the impact of the virus globally. But the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which studies the economic impact of U.S. business-to-business trade shows, said those events alone were expected to generate $105 billion in direct and indirect spending in 2020. Instead, that plunged to $24 billion.”

Hanging over what I’m calling the Great Resumption like a lead balloon, is still COVID of course, and protecting against it, which adds massive amounts of friction into what were fraught processes to begin with, i.e., hotel check-in, conference registration and the agony of air travel. (Regarding the latter, check out this beautifully written piece from way back by the ever-insightful Tim Smith.)

Now add the mandatory TSA mask regs at airports and on planes (and the chuckleheads who ignore them), vaccine mandates at events, and negative COVID test requirements and well, you better be patient and leave extra time is all I can say. In particular is the tricky negative PCR test within 72 hours before you board some overseas flights. You have to time the test just right, so that you take it within 72 hours, but get the results back before take-off. (Think!)

You also may experience a new pain if you are flying long haul. That being the irritation of mask straps behind your ears for six hours (from say New York to LA), particularly on one side if you take a nap and are leaning on one ear.

Also note, a friend told me he was required to show a negative COVID test result to enter an airline club lounge. Pro-tip, carry some of those Abbott BinaxNOW home tests with you on the road. They may not always be accepted but they’re better than nothing and might be good for your own peace of mind at some point if you are feeling a bit peaked.

And so here then is my mini-travelogue, immediate past, present and future.

Concordia Annual Summit

This was my first foray back into the world of live events as some call them. Concordia was held at the Sheraton New York Times Square in late September to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly. In fact I should point out that the United Nations meeting itself was a hybrid. President Biden spoke in person to a half-filled hall, as many of the delegates and leaders declined to travel, including China’s President Xi Jinping who made his remarks remotely.

As Concordia was in New York City, I didn’t have to travel, (though a number of attendees did), so that was easy enough. Still, this was not back in 2019 by any means.

There were COVID protocols to abide by, including providing proof of vaccine (and ID). Concordia also administered a rapid test on the hotel premises. After that, entrez-vous, though masks were required at all times.

Matthew Swift, CEO of Concordia, reports that of his speakers, 100 were in person and 83 were virtual. I interviewed Raj Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, (in person) and as we walked up on stage, we elbow-bumped John Kerry, U.S. Special Envoy, Lisa Jackson, vice president, environment, policy and social initiatives at Apple (AAPL) and Ryan Roslansky, CEO of LinkedIn, who were on the way down. Try doing that virtually!

It was also just great to be with people. Like my colleagues — Mike Claudio, Julie Hyman, and Justin Katz, whom I hadn't seen in ages. (Hi guys!) And to meet new people, like someone who later emailed me about a job, and another person who turned out to be friendly with someone at work. I also met with the CEO of one of the big waste companies who shared a cool idea I want to turn into a story. And a shipping company exec gave me key intel on the supply chain foul-up. I didn’t know any of this would happen beforehand. All I knew going in was that I was interviewing Raj. This was much much more. This was serendipity.

It’s what Graf from NYU calls, “Corridor discussions. Things you can’t say on Zoom. That’s what really excites me. That kind of emotional reconnection — we’ve been meeting on Zoom for the past two years but that’s really a missing ingredient.”

Milken Institute Global Conference

For this one I had to fly from New York to LA, which was all good despite wearing a mask for some eight hours (flights plus airport time.) Reminder: There can be delays getting cabs or Uber/Lyft to and from airports because of driver shortages. Remember too that some restaurants and hotels have labor shortages, as well. All that means factoring in extra time.

Milken also required attendees to be vaccinated and produce a negative PCR or antigen test. You also have to wear a Milken-issued KN95 mask. Your own mask, even if it was the same, was not accepted. Eating was only allowed in eating areas, ditto even for drinking water! COVID police patrolled the event making sure folks kept their masks on and up. A few events were held outdoors to reduce risk.

That said, none of these protocols hindered the event, and in short order attendees seemed to accept and even forget about them. Milken had an impressive roster of in-person speakers too. I have to say that hanging out backstage and conversing with the likes of Reed Hastings, Byron Allen, and Jean Case, as well as fellow journos like CNBC’s David Faber and Julia Boorstin was tons of fun and incredibly valuable for me.

Also this past Monday while I was at Milken, came a very stark reminder that COVID is still very present with the news that Colin Powell died from the disease.

Milken is a bit old-school. Guys wear ties, and lo and behold people were exchanging business cards (huh?) Despite that, much of the talk at Milken was about what work would be like going forward. In fact, I moderated two panels which focused on that. The first was Thinking Forward: A Business Evolution where Infosys President Ravi Kumar spoke about a “hybrid paradox and a reshuffle in the human capital market.”

Meaning what?

“Seventy percent of the people are actually saying they want human connections,” says Kumar. “They want to come to conferences like this. Seventy percent of the people are actually saying they want flexibility. The same 70%. That’s what I call a hybrid paradox which will lead employers to look for more flexibility. [Psychologist, professor, author] Adam Grant, spoke about how flexibility is no longer about where you go to work and when you go to work, it's also about why you want to work. For a better purpose, working on your priorities, or working with the people you want to work with.”

In my second panel, Going Global: The Future of Work, Allen Media CEO Byron Allen talked about human capital. “It’s a very precious commodity. Folks can work wherever they want, they have many choices. And I've always made it clear, don't come to my company for a job, because I know you can have a job anywhere, come here to make history. It's far greater than just a career, we're here to change the paradigm. You shouldn't be here if you're uncomfortable with us challenging the system. This is about changing the world for the greater good. It's people before profits. When the world's biggest media companies laid everybody off, I wouldn't lay one person off. If I'm going to win the championships, I have to have a championship team. And the championship teams always have very little turnover.”

Allen went on to talk about hiring a key employee from another company: “I called her up. I introduced myself and told her what we were doing. And I asked her how much she was making. And she told me and I said, I’d like to double it. And would you like to start? And she said, Yes. We don't have a retention problem. Because people know they are a priority at our company no matter what. We pay them well, and we treat them well.”

Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit: The Path Forward

Up next on Monday, we’ll be hosting our mostly virtual event at the Nasdaq in Times Square. (I say mostly because while we won’t have a live audience, a few guests will join us in person and I’ll be there, too.) This is our eighth All Markets Summit and we’re thrilled to connect our audience of 100 million-plus (including you) with leaders and influencers in business, finance, cryptocurrencies, health care, public policy, social justice, philanthropy, climate change including Citigroup (C) CEO Jane Fraser, Zoom (ZM) CEO Eric Yuan, SEC Chair Gary Gensler, Surgeon General of the United States Dr. Vivek Murthy, Bank of America (BAC) CEO Brian Moynihan, and many more. See you here, Monday from "9 To 5," (as Dolly Parton would say.)

Web Summit

A week after our All Markets Summit I’m off to Lisbon for the Web Summit, Nov. 1-4, where I’ll be doing a number of panels and interviews. Organizers expect some 40,000 attendees. (Yikes!) To access the Web Summit venue, “attendees will need photo identification (I have that) and an EU Digital COVID Certificate (I don’t have that), or a negative PCR test from within the last 72 hours or a negative antigen test from within the last 48 hours. (See what I mean about timing these babies just right.) And all attendees will be required to wear masks. Bigwigs there include the likes of Craig Federighi of Apple, Brad Smith of Microsoft (MSFT), and Nick Clegg and Chris Cox of Facebook (FB), as well as Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower. (Whoa Frances. Careful who you bump into at the coffee bar!)

I’m curious how this mega-event works out, and a little wary too about health and safety. Maybe I’ll stay outside most of the time.

The big question of course is, is this all worth it? The tougher-than-ever travel, the COVID tests, the costs, emissions, and still the risk. I would answer that to a degree, as in, pick your spots, yes.

That business travel is coming is inevitable, just not to the way it was before. “There will be major changes in how people travel for business. These are not short-term changes; these are long-term systemic changes," says Henry Harteveldt, travel and hospitality analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “Companies that exhibit and attend events will be a lot more thoughtful in determining where they invest their time and money. So the caliber of a conference is going to have to be even more compelling now than it was in 2019.”

Two things we learned in the pandemic. First, it’s much easier to get someone on a Zoom call than to schedule an in-person meeting. Second, it is almost indescribable what you miss when you don’t talk to people face-to-face.

So what we’re really trying to do is quantify the value of being together. Trying to weigh all those costs versus an almost intangible but nevertheless massive upside. The fact that when we aren’t together we don’t know what we miss.

I thought about that when I was backstage at the Milken conference talking privately to the sui generis investor Cathie Wood, CEO of Ark Invest, about moving her business to Florida. It was a great little conversation, though it wasn’t so much what she said but rather her gestures, mannerisms, and mien. And the look in her eyes. It was just a moment, but it was something no Zoom call or Metaverse room could ever replicate — at least in my lifetime.

This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on October 23, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer

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