If you travel for work all the time, is there any ROI?

What's the ROI of business travel?

In my life, I’ve worked with probably 90-120 people who were true ‘business travel road warriors,’ meaning they’re basically gone Sunday to Thursday every week. This confuses the hell out of me. If you live in Pittsburgh and you’re always flying to San Jose for client work, why not just go live in San Jose? Wouldn’t that be easier for the company, as opposed to constantly paying for cross-country flights? And if you’re staying in Pittsburgh because you’re tied to something there — i.e. your family or friends — then why are you so content to leave them for over 60 percent of each week?

There’s one absolute basic answer, buffered by a lot of other, smaller things: namely, ‘business’ in the way most people understand it is still very much individual-to-individual and face-to-face. Phrased another way: even if we have amazing technological tools that let someone from Tokyo be on a direct video chat with someone from Zurich and someone from Pittsburgh at the same time, most organizations won’t hand over cash to another organization without some face time. That’s how business is done, frankly. And that’s why there are people who travel all the time, in all industries/verticals (not just consulting).

Is there any documented ROI on this, though?

About four years ago (so a few years after the 2008 crash), TNooz wrote an article about why video conferencing won’t kill the business travel industry, citing the main thing I said above: business is a face-to-face time. They did note this, however, as regards budgets:

A severely turbulent economic time makes cost-cutting tools like video conferencing very attractive.

Marketing literature of big-time video conference players is filled with case studies that show significant travel and meeting cost reductions. And as apps like FaceTime and Skype make video conferencing more mainstream, the big guys will open new markets with small and mid-size businesses looking to save money.

That’s right — and right now, we’re not necessarily in a severely turbulent economic time. Job growth looks good, although earnings are stagnant — but the dirty little secret of most organizations is that the people who do business travel are either (a) closer to the top or (b) closer to sales pipelines. Economics matters much less for those people; they tend to be protected to a certain degree within budgeting, unless the revenue bottom completely falls out.

Carlson Wagonlit — who has a vested interest in people doing more business travel — did some research on the value and reasons for business travel, including this graphic:

Why People Travel For Business

That’s the why of people traveling for business. Break that down in terms of “whether you could do the activity without traveling” and you get this:

  • Supplier Meeting: Yes
  • Client/Prospect Meeting: Yes
  • Team-Related Meeting: Yes
  • Training and Development: Yes/No, depending on whether it’s a specific conference
  • Events, Conferences and Fairs: Mostly no
  • Operations and quality control: No
  • Innovation and R&D: Depends what you mean, but I’d lean ‘No’

Still, the largest chunks of why people travel for business = doable without travel.

I met a guy in a hotel bar — that’s where you meet the greatest people, by the way — once who told me he often travels 6-7 times before even starting up a sale. That seems aggressive, although I’m sure many companies and mid-to-high level employees operate that way. That means 14 flights before money is even on the table — good on the “relationships before revenue” front, but that’s a bunch of money out of the coffers of the organization.

Now, you can argue 7 flights at $400 per ($2800) and 7 two-night hotel stays at $250/night ($3500) plus a few meals and beers means this guy is spending a total of what, $10,000? If that 10K results in a 2-million dollar sale of the product/service, then the ROI is there, for sure.

There are other factors to all this as well, notably:

I think a lot of the business travel mindset comes from the same “work is virtue” Puritanical BS we’ve been chasing for centuries. In the George Clooney film Up in the Air, they postulate the idea that men specifically do this because they can’t have babies — so they need purpose in their life through work, and that often involves chasing targets and deliverables wherever you’re supposed to. Same anthropological argument: mostly societies are settled now, but all of us came from hunter-gatherers who were essentially nomadic. It might harken to that, especially for men.

I had a friend who traveled for work all the time once tell me, “It seems cool at first, but at Year III you realize you’re mostly in office parks and hotel ballrooms and weird bars/diners, and it’s a lot less cool.” If you read any of the links above, most will tell you a simple fact: from a delivery or task standpoint, you can do almost anything remotely. People often fly to destinations for meetings and end up sitting in an office or cubicle, or creating unnecessary meetings to feel as if they justified the trip. (At my last job, I saw an SVP from Seattle sitting outside the CEO’s office in Ft. Worth thumbing through Facebook. That doesn’t seem like very high ROI.)

Ignore for one second the fact that most people want more time/experiences with loved ones at the end of their life (which is a fairly big thing to ignore), and ask yourself this: if you could close the deal on a video conference that cost you next to nothing, with maybe 1 flight near the end stages of a process, wouldn’t you?

Final thought that aggravates me beyond belief: when you send employees to a trade show or conference or summit for their industry, there has to be a rule in your company that someone presents about what they learned — even if it’s just a deck on Yammer or Slack or something. It’s unbelievable to me how many places I’ve worked where 10 people go to some trade show, and the next Monday, they’re all back. You ask them “What did you learn?” and they say “A lot of valuable stuff!” and then no one speaks of it again. That’s miserable. You might as well be saying “We gave them a week off to check e-mail and schmooze and get drunk at their hotel.” Maybe that’s what you are saying. (The same SVP in the example above went to a trade show in Hawaii and apparently gave a really strong 20-minute presentation. I asked for him to put it on our Yammer. Crickets.)

I personally feel like if you’re good at developing relationships and connecting with others, you can do that face-to-face or over a teleconference, but I’m also not some hard-charging sales guy or anything.

Ted Bauer