Pandemic restrictions in US are lifting and business is getting back on the road

Travelers at airports are up to 75% of 2019 levels, conferences are packed and good luck finding a car to rent

Last modified on Sun 27 Jun 2021 06.06 EDT

If you’re a business owner and you’re still tentative about getting back on the road to see your customers or attend a conference, you better get over these hesitations quick. Business travel is quickly returning to pre-pandemic levels, and many of my clients are making their travel plans, both professionally and personal. Many others are already traveling.

A few quick statistics to explain what’s going on – and what I’m seeing.

As recently as last week, travelers through the nation’s airports, according to the TSA, have reached 75% of the levels at the same time in 2019 and those levels are rapidly rising. I walked through Chicago’s O’Hare airport last week and the terminals were packed.

Also as of last week, the hotel industry reported that occupancy is currently down a mere 10% compared with the same week in 2019. Last night, at a hotel in Dallas, I waited 20 minutes for a table at dinnertime amid swarms of fellow attendees at a conference here. And that was after waiting 20 minutes just to check in for my room!

Speaking of conferences, I’ve been speaking at conferences. Six of them in the past month in Texas, Arizona, Florida, Maryland, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Every one of those conferences had hundreds of people in attendance – mostly all small-business owners representing various industries from chemical distribution to airplane parts manufacturers. They were mask-less, drunk and excited to be back with their friends and industry rivals playing golf and getting up to speed on the latest developments.

“We are already seeing the signs of people starting to travel for work in a more affirmative way, a more significant way,” Hyatt Hotels’ chief executive, Mark Hoplamazian, told CNBC. “Most of the bankers, consultants and lawyers that I’m talking to are gearing up to be back on the road.” Hoplamazian says that demand will “really take hold in a more affirmative way in the fall”. I’m seeing it take hold even earlier.

True, a lot of this travel is personal. After being stuck in the house with the kids for a year, families are itching for a change of scenery. This is why CNBC also cites a recent survey from Deloitte that says that 40% of Americans said they plan to take a vacation that involves a flight or hotel during the summer, a number almost exactly comparable to the same period in 2019.

But business travel has also significantly picked up as more workers are coming back to their offices and conference planners are swinging into high gear. Even a survey sponsored by Chubb and published by Dynata in late April showed that just under 50% of business travelers say they would be comfortable flying domestically and that was before things really started to pick up in May and June.

A couple of tips for my fellow small-business travelers, based on my experiences so far.

Airlines are struggling to snap back. American, for example, has recently had to cancel hundreds of flights due to pilot shortages and other labor issues. This means for a tricky summer so I would recommend booking far in advance, staying away from last-minute flights and tight connections, and giving yourself extra time in case your flight is changed or cancelled. It’s already happened to me more than once.

Rental car agencies, as many of us already know, are desperately short of cars. The parking lots I’m seeing at many airports are much emptier than their pre-pandemic levels. The priority is going to priority customers. If you’re not one of the chosen, you may want to make sure you have a backup plan.

Finally, carry a few masks with you. The rules are confusing and conflicting. You have to wear one in an airport and a plane so please, don’t be a mask-hole. Just suck it up and wear it, because if I have to, you have to. If you don’t heed my warning and delay a flight, you’re not going to win any friends among your fellow travelers.

So yes, go ahead. Attend your industry conference. Plan a customer visit or two. Or better yet, take the family to a resort. You’re fully vaccinated and you’ve earned it. It’s been a very tough 18 months. But the pandemic is behind us. Your competitors are already out there. It’s time to join them.

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