Why do (business) people travel?

Kris DeDecker
April 2017

Many companies have been investing in telecommunication in an effort to reduce business travel. In particular, videoconferencing technologies, from Skype to high-end telepresense systems, are seen as a substitute for physical travel, assisted by other recent technologies such as e-mail and text chat. However, to date, virtual ways of working have yet to reduce demand for business travel. Face-to-face communication is persisting and expanding. [1][2] Rather than substituting for physical travel, communications technology is complementing and even encouraging it by spatially extending business networks, creating and maintaining a need for business travel.


What is Business Travel?

There is no generally used definition of “business travel”. Some researchers define it as international or international air travel for work-related reasons, while others define it as any non-commuting trip for work-related reasons that is more than 80 km away from the main workplace. Within the latter definition there are those that only include trips with at least one overnight stay, while others don’t make this distinction. Depending on these assumptions, business travel is undertaken by members of very different professions with very different practices. [3]

Consequently, it’s also difficult to arrive at an accurate estimate of the share of business travel in total travel demand. Estimates are very diverse and vary from “15% of all trips above 80 km in Europe and the USA” over “25-40% of global air traffic” to “12% of all international trips abroad by workers based in the UK”. A further complication is that some researchers look at the number of trips, while others look at distance travelled. For example, while non-commuting travel within the course of work within England is estimated to account for 3% of all trips undertaken, it accounts for 10% of the distance travelled. [1]

This article focuses on business travel as international air travel for work-related reasons. Although this excludes a great deal of business travel over shorter distances, there are two reasons to concentrate on air travel alone. First, due to the high speeds and long distances involved, air travel is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Second, there are no practical low carbon alternatives for air travel. Car trips could potentially be replaced by more sustainable but equally fast alternatives such as buses and trains, but these are not viable alternatives to long-distance plane trips.

Over the last 40 years, global air travel increased more than eightfold, from 421 million passenger flights in 1974 to 3.6 billion passenger flights in 2016. Since the 1990s, when the introduction of low-cost airlines made plane tickets much cheaper, global air travel has more than tripled. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects a doubling or tripling of passenger flights by 2035, which corresponds to a growth of 3.7% per year. [4] It’s estimated that 25-40% of flights are business trips. [5] It should be noted that only a relatively small part of the global population actually flies – many air travellers are regular air travellers.


Virtual Interaction Instead of Flying?

Many companies have been investing in telecommunication technology in an effort to reduce business travel. This stems from environmental concerns and commitments to corporate social responsibility as well as from a desire to reduce the cost of travel, both in terms of money and time. [2][6] In particular, videoconferencing technologies of all forms are seen as a substitute for physical travel. Videoconferencing allows two or more people in different locations to communicate by simultaneous two-way video and audio transmissions over the internet. Although the technology uses energy, not only in the office itself but also in the network infrastructure, this energy use is considerably less than in the case of a plane trip, unless the virtual meeting takes a very long time. The cost of videoconferencing is also much lower than a plane trip, both in terms of money and time.

Since its appearance in the 1990s, videoconferencing has improved significantly because of cheaper and faster internet access, better video compression, more powerful computer processors, and innovative design. One the one hand, videoconferencing has become integrated with laptops, mobile phones and social media, making it available for frequent and easy use to even the smallest businesses. Skype, Gmail and Facebook all offer videocalls. On the other hand, expensive high-end videoconferencing technology, usually described as “telepresence” systems, have very high image and sound quality featuring multiple, life-size screens usually located in dedicated rooms. [5]

Both low-end and high-end videconferencing systems have found widespread use in the business world in recent years. Although reliable figures are hard to come by, industry reports state that the videoconferencing market’s revenue grows at an annual rate of 5-10%, while scientific studies of specific workplaces show a clear uptake in the use of webconferencing. [7][8][5] The internet also brought us e-mail and the ability to share work documents and computer screens, and the introduction of mobile devices has further boosted the potential to communicate without physically moving anywhere. Most communication tools have seen increased use in the last decades. E-mail, which was still a rarity at the end of the 1990s, is now used by close to 100% of office workers and business people [9], while international call traffic has quadrupled since 2000. [10]


Why do Business People Still Travel?

Given all the possibilities for “virtual” interaction, why do business people still bother with the risks, uncertainties and frustrations of physical travel? [11] According to mobility researchers, people travel for three reasons: to meet other people (“face-to-face”), to visit a particular place (“face-the-space”), or to be part of the a live event (“face-the-moment”). In a business context, most travel is driven by the need for face-to-face meetings, but it could also be to visit a live event (a conference or a trade show) or a particular place (like a construction site or the headquarters of a new business partner). In all these cases, the co-location of bodies is essential.

The idea that videoconferencing can substitute for physical travel is based on the fact that the technology allows people to look each other in the eyes and read their body language, which helps to regulate the flow of conversation and provides information on the emotional state of participants. [6][11][12] In this sense, videoconferencing is “richer” than calling someone on the phone or writing someone an e-mail or a letter – it comes closer to the experience of physical co-presence than older communication methods. [9]

However, while videoconferencing adds eye contact and body language, there are still important differences as compared to physical co-presence. The participants in a face-to-face meeting can touch each other, for instance by shaking hands. Furthermore, physical travel allows for informal and inadvertent meetings, such as going out for dinner or drinks with business partners. During such occasions, people usually have more informal conversations which help to establish trust and common ground. Physical travel can also demonstrate respect: the further one has travelled to meet with the other, the more effort, and therefore the more value is demonstrated in this exchange. In short, while videoconferencing might be “richer” than other communication technologies, face-to-face communication is “richer” still. [6][11][13]

In reality, physical travel is not necessarily more effective than videoconferencing, and neither is videoconferencing necessarily more effective than sending an e-mail or making a phone call. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. E-mail, for example, can be preferred over videoconferencing or a phone call because there’s no need to arrange a specific time for the exchange of information, it’s non-intrusive, it provides a durable record of the conversation, and it allows a person to carefully compose a precise message. On the downside, composing an e-mail usually requires more time than making a phone call, and an immediate response is not guaranteed. Consequently, sometimes it’s just easier to call someone, explain something quickly, and get immediate feedback. People don’t substitute one communication medium for another, they use an ever larger number of tools for different purposes. Communication tools work in concert rather than alone. [9]

The key to effective use of a communication medium, including physical travel, is to match the media capabilities to the fundamental communications processes required to perform the task at hand. [5] Whether there is audio or video connectivity, for example, does not seem to affect performance in single problem-solving or brainstorming tasks, but does make a difference in tasks evolving negotiation and conflict. [12] In another example, technical workers tend to favour e-mail for communicating highly technical content because e-mail offers reviewability and more carefully formulated messages than face-to-face or a phone call. [14] There are business tasks for which virtual interaction is embraced, while there are others for which only physical travel will do. Interviews with business travellers show that negotiations, financial deals, and business development require a large degree of interpersonal contact and physical proximity due to the need to establish relationships of trust. [3] Physical travel is often also considered vital for transmitting secret information, as well as for managing sensitive staff issues, such as hiring, firing or conducting performance reviews. On the other hand, virtual interaction is often preferred for more routine, functional, formal or task-oriented business contacts. In these cases, the accessibility and speed of virtual interaction is decisive. [3][15]

However, these are not ironclad rules. For example, face-to-face contact is considered vital especially in the early stages of a partner or a client relationship, when there are high levels of uncertaintly on both sides. Later, when the relationship is established, physical co-presence can be partly subsitituted by virtual modes of communication. [13] Once people know each other, it becomes easier to work together at a distance. For example, once strong interpersonal ties have been established, people tend to get more responsive to e-mails. Furthermore, social practices can and do change. For example, one day it could be perfectly “normal” to fire someone using e-mail, or conduct a job interview through a video call, just as it has become “normal” to send an e-mail instead of making a phone call.


Virtual Interaction Encourages Physical Travel

Physical and virtual interaction are not only complementing but also influencing and enhancing each other. How people interact depends on the business task at hand, but faster and cheaper communication and transportation options also change the very nature of business tasks themselves. Low-cost airlines have made it cheaper to travel, and new communications technology has made it cheaper and easier to be in contact with people far away. The combination of both trends has encouraged the spatial extension of corporations, enabling business practices which create and maintain demand for business travel, and which rely on interaction with distant partners and contacts. Not so long ago, many companies were huge centers of work and enforced proximity, typically serving local or national markets. Today, an increasing number of companies operate across global markets and have employees all over the world. [1][2][5][13]

Consequently, the root cause of the demand for business travel by air – and for communications technology – is the development of new forms of corporate organisation that necessitate the interweaving of the timespace of spatially distributed and temporally dispersed actors to coordinate a range of actions. Technology facilitates both the procurement and the management of work further away. [2] The globalisation of companies and markets, the increasing prevalence of multi-facility companies, the introduction of multi-site teamworking, the consolidation between firms, and the growing reliance on outsourcing and partnerships with other companies could only happen because of the time-space compression offered by transportation and communication technology from the 1980s onwards. [3]

In a similar fashion, time-space compression has extended and transformed private social networks. The fastest-growing world tourism class has neither been leisure nor business travel, but visiting friends and relatives. Travelling and socialising at a distance have become everyday practices. This trend is partly related to the growth in both long-term and short-term migration: thanks to airlines and communication technology, people can travel, relocate and migrate and still be connected with friends and family members who they left behind. [13] It also works the other way around. Global social networks are encouraged by the internet, which has made it possible to get to know new people from all over the world and communicate online, for instance in relation to specific hobbies or passions. However, these new social connections can also generate international or long distance travel if people eventually decide to meet in person.

As with business networks, new and weak social ties require more physical travel in order to survive long distances. [13] In fact, the boundaries between work and leisure travel are increasingly blurred – a trip can assume different roles. Those who go on a business trip may add some extra days of vacation, while those travelling for pleasure might do some work at their holiday destination. Cities that were once mainly business or leisure centers, have become hubs for both types of travellers – examples are Dubai, Las Vegas or Barcelona. [5]


How to Reduce Demand?

To define, investigate and solve the problem of increasing long distance business travel, it may not be very useful to distinguish between business and private travel at all. Rather, we should concentrate on the root cause that encourages all types of travel: expanding the opportunities for people to meet and collaborate, whether that be in person or virtually, expands global mobility on the whole, allowing for an increasing diversity of international connections that need to be maintained through physical and virtual travel. [2] Ironically, further improving videoconferencing technology, for instance by adding 3D or robotics, would only reinforce these trends, even though it would make virtual encounters more lifelike. It follows that, if we want to lower the demand for private and business travel, it would make more sense to discourage the use of communication technology than to promote it. This would make it more difficult to keep spatially stretched social networks functioning, and would thus lead to a spatial contraction of both private social networks and business networks.

The problem is that we live in a world with global markets and global social networks. Business travel could be reduced through corporate reorganisation that produces work practices which require less business travel, but that implies that certain businesses might become smaller and less powerful. Private travel could be reduced by encouraging more local social networks, but that implies that people with strong ties in different parts of the world will lose at least part of their social network. The global transportation and communication system has locked in resource-intensive ways of social interaction, and it’s hard to see how this trend could be reversed, at least as long as energy resources can sustain it.



[1] Do virtual ways of working reduce demand for business travel?, DEMAND Research Insight Template.

[2] Jones I, Faulconbridge J, Marsden G, Anable J (accepted and forthcoming) Demanding business travel: the evolution of the timespaces of business practice. In: Hui A, Day R, Walker G (eds) Demanding Energy: spaces, temporalities and change. Hampshire: Palgrace Macmillan

[3] Aguiléra, Anne, and Laurent Proulhac. “Socio-occupational and geographical determinants of the frequency of long-distance business travel in France.” Journal of Transport Geography 43 (2015): 28-35.

[4] IATA forecasts passenger demand to double over 20 years, IATA press release, 18 October 2016. http://www.iata.org/pressroom/pr/Pages/2016-10-18-02.aspx

[5] Hesse, Markus, and Richard Knowles. International Business Travel in the Global Economy. Eds. Ben Derudder, et al. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012.

[6] Strengers, Yolande. “Meeting in the global workplace: Air travel, telepresence and the body.” Mobilities 10.4 (2015): 592-608.

[7] Video Conferencing Trends of 2016: Heralding the Future of Business Communications. Technical Report. IDG Enterprise, 2015.

[8] Global Web Conferencing Market, Forecast to 2020. Technical Report. Frost & Sullivan, January 2016

[9] Turner, Thea, et al. “Exploring the workplace communication ecology.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2010.

[10] TeleGeography Report & Database, 2015

[11] Urry, John. “Mobility and proximity.” Sociology 36.2 (2002): 255-274.

[12] Karis, Demetrios, Daniel Wildman, and Amir Mané. “Improving remote collaboration with video conferencing and video portals.” Human–Computer Interaction 31.1 (2016): 1-58.

[13] Larsen, Jonas, Kay W. Axhausen, and John Urry. “Geographies of social networks: meetings, travel and communications.” Mobilities 1.2 (2006): 261-283.

[14] Kim, Hyo, et al. “Configurations of relationships in different media: FtF, email, instant messenger, mobile phone, and SMS.” Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication 12.4 (2007): 1183-1207.

[15] Poom, Age, Kati Orru, and Rein Ahas. “The carbon footprint of business travel in the knowledge-intensive service sector.” Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment 50 (2017): 292-304.