US executives predict rapid resumption of corporate travel

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According to an AICPA study, 34 percent of respondents expect business travel spending to return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021

A little more than a third of U.S. business executives (34 percent) say they expect their companies’ travel spending to return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021, if they haven’t reached those levels already, according to an American Institute of CPAs survey of CEOs, CFOs, controllers and other senior-level CPAs who hold executive and senior management accounting roles.

Overall, 46 percent of survey respondents predicted a significant uptick in domestic business travel through the end of the year, but within that group there was divided opinion on how global travel would be affected. The responses were to supplemental questions within the second-quarter AICPA Economic Outlook Survey, topline results of which were released on June 3.

Among other business-related travel findings from the survey:

Only nine percent of business executives said they expected continued restrictions on both domestic and global travel through the second half of 2021
One in five business executives said they expect it will take one to three years for travel to return to pre-pandemic levels, while 10 percent it would never return to that level. Another 29 percent said they expect the category to rebound within 12 months
The top reasons given for resumed travel include, in order: client and sales meetings (66 percent), industry conferences and trade shows (55 percent), internal business meetings (52 percent) and company training (37 percent). The numbers don’t add up to 100 percent because respondents could pick all that applied
Forty-six percent said the shift to virtual had impacted their plans on travel resumption, either through more scrutiny or because of cost savings. “Travel will be restricted to higher value, more mission-critical instances,” one survey taker commented. Said another: “The cost savings are immense …. This has been a big plus for our business.”
Twelve-month projections for headcount growth in the U.S. hospitality and food sector, which includes travel, jumped to 2.9 percent from 2.1 percent last quarter, according to the survey. That exceeds the aggregate 12-month projection for all sectors of 2.5 percent.

“The business travel responses within our survey support its broader findings: there is growing optimism about the recovery accelerating through the end of the year,” said Ash Noah, CPA, CGMA, vice president and managing director of CGMA learning, education and development for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing the AICPA and CIMA. “While 91 percent of the respondents confirm that restrictions on domestic and international travel are being lifted, we’re seeing a reassessment or reset on what kinds of travel represent true value. We can also expect a longer lag in global travel resumption, given the varying degrees of effective pandemic response within different regions and nations.”

The response to events sponsored by the AICPA and CIMA also support the survey findings on stepped-up business travel. The number of attendees expected to attend onsite at ENGAGE 2021 from July 26-29 in Las Vegas, for example, substantially exceeds projections made at the start of the year. ENGAGE includes multiple learning tracks for public accounting and management accounting and is one of the largest profession-focused events in the United States.

“Right now, we’re expecting about half of our attendees to show up in person,” said Todd Helton, senior director of meetings and conferences for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. “We’re pleasantly surprised by the current mix of virtual and onsite attendees.”