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Business travel ticking upward, but by how much is uncertain


There are signs that business travel is picking up at the Des Moines International Airport, but officials say it’s difficult to know what the numbers are. Here, passengers pass through the airport terminal as airline traffic slowly began to return earlier this year. Photo by Duane Tinkey

As the air travel industry continues its recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unclear how much of the increase in traffic at airports in recent months is from business travelers, a segment of the industry considered to be the last that would return as companies navigate their return to normal.

The one thing that is clear? It could still be a couple of years before business travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, but there is anecdotal evidence that it’s trending upward.

Airlines suffered record losses in 2020 as air travel plummeted in the early days of the pandemic, and projections were that the industry might not fully recover until 2024. Over the past year, air travel has rebounded and officials have increased optimism heading into 2022.

The number of passengers passing through the gates at Des Moines International Airport is up nearly more than 64% in 2021, year-to-date through November, the latest period that data is available. According to data on the airport’s website, nearly 1.97 million people have traveled through the airport so far in 2021, up from about 1.19 million during the same period in 2020.

While leisure travelers flocked back to airports as confirmed COVID-19 cases declined in late 2020 and early 2021, and as vaccines were introduced last spring, the airport doesn’t differentiate between those who travel for business and those who travel for fun.

The airport can use anecdotal indicators, such as parking revenue, the number of passengers who are using TSA precheck and those wearing business attire to suggest that more people are traveling for business now than a year ago, said Kayla Kovarna, manager of communications, marketing and air service at the airport.

But even those indicators are shifting as more leisure travelers are parking in the airport’s parking ramp and fewer business travelers are wearing business attire, she said.

A survey the airport sent to businesses in the region in 2020 showed that many planned to resume travel after Labor Day 2021, and Kovarna said she plans to circle back to the businesses with another survey in the first quarter of 2022 to explore how many companies have resumed travel and compare that with pre-pandemic levels.

“Not all conferences are back yet, so while we know those sales folks in business development are back on the road, we don’t know to what degree and we are missing that work conference component,” she said.

Some of the anecdotal information is gathered by the airport’s leadership team as they walk through the terminal. The airport staff also works with TSA management about TSA precheck use and renewals. Most people who use TSA precheck travel for business, so an increase in renewals or use could be a sign business travel is ticking upward, Kovarna said.

If a person is traveling alone or going through precheck early in the morning, that could also indicate they are traveling for business, she said.

“Unless we were surveying every individual coming through the airport, there’s not an exact science to identify that,” Kovarna said.

Some airlines pay someone to survey passengers, but Kovarna said that wasn’t done consistently during the pandemic so no recent data from those surveys is available.

The airport generally sees a 50-50 mix of leisure and business travelers, but the launch of the Allegiant base earlier this year could tilt traffic more toward leisure because of the increase in nonstop destination flights, Kovarna said.

“We seem to be having more individuals coming in for those flights, so the pendulum may be swinging more in favor for us on the leisure side,” she said. “We know business is a big part of our value that we bring here, connecting folks to business opportunities, and that’s not going to change. We just might be growing faster on the leisure side than we are on the business side.”

Joe Murphy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council, which is made up of top leaders and decision-makers of the state’s largest 22 companies, said an informal survey of some of the group’s members shows it’s a mixed bag when it comes to business travel. Some are doing little to no travel and still meeting virtually, while others have returned to business as usual with no restrictions.

“We have yet to see a collective return to business travel across all sectors,” Murphy said. “Some companies are still avoiding it and relying upon virtual meeting platforms, while others are starting to return to pre-pandemic levels. Our members are reporting that domestic travel has rebounded faster than international trips.”

Brian Crowe, vice president of economic development for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said the Partnership resumed business travel last spring, but halted travel again in late summer and early fall with the surge in the delta variant of the coronavirus. Travel resumed again in October, he said.

For the Partnership, the decision to resume travel was determined in great part by how comfortable staff members were in hitting the road, Crowe said.

“We certainly wanted to make sure our employees were comfortable with it, and the feedback I got from some of the folks on our team was that they were interested and ready to get back out there,” he said. “Some of them were actually a little more proactive. If everyone feels safe and if people we are interested in meeting feel safe and we’re all on the same page, there was no reason we shouldn’t be making face-to-face meetings.”

Crowe acknowledged that the travel decision is local and depends on what’s happening in specific areas of the country.

“Every conference has different protocols, every place we go to has different protocols. It’s just  making sure everyone is comfortable with the environment, but also knowing we feel safe in what we’re doing,” Crowe said.

He said early meetings after travel resumed may have been at coffee houses or over lunch, but as offices began to reopen he and his team began going back into offices to meet with people.

He said that anecdotally he’s seeing a lot of business travel right now.

“It seems to me that it has come back in a more significant way this year,” Crowe said. “I would say it trended up and then maybe quieted down for a while, but now when we go back out, we see a lot of business travelers on planes.”

Crowe said resuming business travel and holding meetings in person gives the Partnership’s economic development team a competitive edge.

“We do think there is value in being out and meeting with our customers face to face in one-on-one meetings,” he said. “There was a strategic advantage to being out and meeting with customers in their marketplaces and having conversations with them in their offices. We’re finding an advantage by being out in front and meeting when others might be just Zooming away.”

Kovarna said that industry reports suggest business travel may not fully recover until 2024, but that Des Moines International Airport tends to be slightly ahead of industry trends.

“Right now we can’t accurately say where we are with business recovery locally … but we think certainly by 2023, 2024 we’ll be fully back,” she said. “We think 2022 is going to be a heavy indicator.”

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