Kristin Stubbins was one the most frequent flyers at her firm, and not for lack of competition.

Travel has long been a major part of being an executive at a professional services firm catering to clients around the country and the world.

“I would be travelling overseas probably once a month, actually, whether that be for client meetings or international conferences,” Ms Stubbins, the lead auditor at PwC Australia, says.

“Then probably one trip a week to Melbourne, Brisbane — I’m based in Sydney so somewhere around Australia.”

Ms Stubbins considered her schedule pretty typical and was used to seeing familiar faces boarding the 6:00am flights on a weekday morning.

But when the pandemic grounded travel a year ago, airport lounges were replaced with video calls into people’s lounge rooms.

A woman in a red suit types on a laptop
Kristin Stubbins has gone from flying weekly to doing more meetings and conferences online.(

ABC News: John Gunn


“We met all our client commitments, the clients met all of their commitments, the capital markets moved on, we were able to do all of that virtually.”

Recovery route for domestic market

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicts the long-term impact of the COVID crisis will be more pronounced on business travel than on leisure travel.

Nine out of 10 executives it surveyed globally expected to travel less post-pandemic.

“During the GFC, during SARS, during 9/11, there were quite short, sharp crises, where behaviour didn’t shift,” BCG senior partner Tom von Oertzen says.

This time, the relatively long duration of the disruption has sparked a more permanent change to habits.

However, domestic business trips are resuming — both Ms Stubbins and Mr von Oertzen have taken a few flights to other cities for work.

Profile view of a man seated, with the opera house visible out the window.
Boston Consulting Group’s Tom von Oertzen expects domestic corporate travel to return to pre-COVID levels, unlike international.(

ABC News: John Gunn


That’s crucial for the airlines — while business travellers are about 40 per cent of domestic passengers, according to BCG research, they account for 50-60 per cent of domestic revenue.

Qantas is projecting a drop of around 13 per cent in business travel overall.

It expects demand from fly-in, fly-out mining and construction workers and government employees, as well as some corporate clients switching away from Virgin, to offset some of the drop in professional services travellers.

The offerings for business class passengers are also resuming.

Most of Qantas lounges are reopen, with a couple undergoing renovations, while Virgin has reopened its seven remaining lounges and unveiled a new business class in-flight menu.

Qantas planes on Sydney airport tarmac
Business travel is a significant revenue source for the airlines domestically.(

AAP: Mick Tsikas


The caveat is domestic border closures.

Border uncertainty leaves travellers up in the air

In Queensland, Michael Chase-Smith’s travel agency group has spent the week dealing with the fallout from the Brisbane lockdown and the reaction of other states.

“It was frantic… we already had that many after-hours calls on the weekend to cancel bookings and change flights, but Monday morning was sort of mayhem yet again,” the Orbit World Travel executive director said.

Over 80 per cent of Mr Chase-Smith’s business is corporate — he estimates they’re currently doing about 15 per cent of their normal trade.

A man in a pink shirt stands on a beach with apartment buildings in background.
Michael Chase-Smith says state border closures are a major issue for his corporate-focused agency.(

ABC News: Steve Keen


“Realistically, there’s a real low confidence level with a lot of organisations about doing domestic travel even now,” he says.

“People have been in the air and then landed in a particular state and then realised that if they don’t get back on the flight to fly back home straight away, they’re going into 14 days quarantine.

He’s worried that domestic border closures will delay the establishment of travel bubbles with New Zealand or parts of Asia that could get overseas business travel going again.

Mr von Oertzen agrees border closures are a hurdle for the recovery.

“I don’t think we’ll reach pre-pandemic levels with borders opening and closing,” he says.

“But I do think as vaccination rates increase and we develop a different attitude to managing infections,  business travel in Australia will actually recover quite quickly.”

However, the international business travel recovery is likely to take longer.

“There’ll be what I call frictions, so short quarantine periods or particular health requirements that people have to go through,” Mr von Oertzen says.

“And because of the changing airline economics and fewer airlines flying here, therefore less competition, fares will go up.”

He sees a quicker recovery in travel between the US and Europe, for example, countries that are used to dealing with higher volumes of COVID cases and are further along in the vaccination rollout.

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Business travel could take years to recover.(Stephanie Chalmers)

Climate targets a longer-term trend

In the short-term, border closures and quarantine requirements are the biggest barriers to recovery.

Longer-term, there are shifting corporate priorities that could see less frequent business travel.

A year without travel showed organisations how much they could save by shifting meetings, training and conferences online.

Empty escalators
The International Convention Centre Sydney expects to bring in just 10 per cent of its pre-COVID revenue this financial year.(

ABC News: John Gunn


Major corporates also unveiled climate change policies, vowing to reduce air travel in order to help them meet emission reductions targets.

PwC has committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

“I think we as a firm and our clients are telling us as well, we’re going to be much more considered about the way we think about the travel,” PwC Australia’s Kristin Stubbins says.

However, Ms Stubbins still expects to travel for longer trips, multiple meetings, conferences and events.

That’s welcome news for Geoff Donaghy, the chief executive of Sydney’s International Convention Centre.

‘Incredible’ energy of in-person meetings

ICC Sydney held 700 events in 2019, for more than 1.4 million visitors — Mr Donaghy says that was worth $896 million.

This financial year, it expects to bring in just 10 per cent of that.

“Getting those events back into venues like ours, and certainly venues in other capital cities, will drive that spending and economic benefit.”

A man sits in an auditorium with empty seats behind him
ICC Sydney CEO Geoff Donaghy says conference attendees spend most of their money outside the convention centre.(

ABC News: John Gunn


Events have recommenced with attendees from Sydney and interstate, but international speakers and attendees are mostly confined to video conferencing.

“It’s going to be part of the future but not as big a part as it’s played in the last six to 12 months,” he says.

“There’s just so many things you can’t do in an online exchange, the body language, the ideas that spark a discussion outside of a formal session.”

BCG’s Tom von Oertzen agrees that even video conferencing converts are experiencing “Zoom fatigue”.

On the Gold Coast, Michael Chase-Smith hopes travel agencies can help get reluctant corporates back in the air.

“If you’re booking through a business travel agency and they’re handling your flights, accommodation, car rentals or transfers or whatever else, at least you’ve got one entity that’s looking after everything,” he says.