Are so many business trips really necessary for better productivity and growth?

Writing in “Buying Business Travel”, Tom Newcombe asks whether there really is as much need for business travel as the proponents of aviation make out.  He says that while air travel can indeed be vital for business, it should be used both sparingly and wisely. He asks whether Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission is actually asking the right questions. “What would show greater imagination and ambition would be for the commission to recognise that, in the 21st century, businesses will eventually decouple travel from growth.”  Travel is not an end in itself, but productivity and output.  “Those who regularly travel on business know that the excitement of jet-setting can soon wear off and actually interfere with, rather than aid, productivity.”  A key factor in reducing flights is changing organisational culture. For example, air travel is often considered prestigious – the more important you are the more the company will spend on your travel. However, this “conventional truth” can be turned on its head – by understanding that the more valuable an employee’s time, the less of it should spend on a plane or sitting in traffic.


Guest column: Is your trip necessary?

by Tom Newcombe (Digital Editor, Buying Business Travel)


While travel can be vital for business, it should be used both sparingly and wisely.

The tussling over which UK airport to expand is a distraction from whether or not Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission is actually asking the right questions.

What would show greater imagination and ambition would be for the commission to recognise that, in the 21st century, businesses will eventually decouple travel from growth.

Travel can be a vital component for most businesses, but it’s not an end in itself. Productivity and output are the true measures of success, so these need to be central to decisions – not only for the Davies Commission but also for decision-makers inside organisations choosing when and how to travel.

The Chancellor’s announcement in the recent Budget to reduce long-haul Air Passenger Duty (APD) is based on the assumption that businesses both want, and need, to fly. Those who regularly travel on business know that the excitement of jet-setting can soon wear off and actually interfere with, rather than aid, productivity.

The One in Five Challenge is a scheme, led by WWF and taken over by Global Action Plan (GAP) in January, to encourage companies to commit to cutting 20% of their business flights within five years. Evidence from businesses taking part in this scheme demonstrates that business growth and increased travel do not go hand-in-hand. Reducing the number of flights taken by employees can benefit businesses looking to limit their environmental impact, cut costs, increase productivity and help their bottom line.

Over the last four years of the One in Five programme, 13 participants have achieved their targets, including BT, Lloyds TSB and Vodafone UK. In the third year of the programme, each company involved had reduced their flights by an average of 38 per cent, leading to average yearly savings of £2 million and 3,000 tonnes of CO2.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of the successful One in Five Challengers are telecommunications companies. They understand how to maximise the use of state-of-the-art technology to replace travel where appropriate, making their businesses more efficient and productive.

BT was the first to complete the challenge. Using audio, video and web-conferencing as a key solution to reduce the need to travel, BT reported an increase in productivity and an improved work life balance for employees. Vodafone UK cut flights by 26 per cent in a single year by ensuring that employees can communicate with each other through video-conferencing, instant messaging and web collaboration software.

A key factor in reducing flights is changing organisational culture. For example, air travel is often considered prestigious – the more important you are the more the company will spend on your travel – but successful One in Five Challengers have turned this conventional ‘truth’ on its head, by instilling an understanding that the more valuable your time, the less you should spend on a plane or sitting in traffic.

GAP’s recent rail report, Changing Gear: Taking Business Travel into the 21st Century, ( Changing_Gear_Global_Action_Plan ) emphasises the importance of business understanding the full costs of travel choices. Compare a journey from London to Glasgow, including transfers and connections, in terms of productivity – end-to-end, the journey may take 30% longer by train rather than plane.

However, on the train, the worker can spend the majority of the journey with access to a phone signal and wifi, with approximately 90% productivity. The same journey by aeroplane requires the passenger to turn off all connectivity on devices during the flight, so the journey end-to-end is only 50% productive.

Accounting for productivity, the train may be more cost- and time-effective. [Especially for domestic trips, with good wifi].

We should welcome growing signs of a shift in business travel behaviour and encourage businesses to look at the most effective way to conduct business.

The Davies Commission should re-frame their focus and consider overall productivity, rather than assume that travel is necessary for growth.




Global Action Plan

In our new report, Changing Gear: taking business travel into the 21st century, we challenge the sustainability of business travel in the UK. We also offer 7 steps to reenvision the role of travel in your organisation.

The report highlights the opportunity offered by remote conferencing. It also showcases the importance of choosing the most productive way to travel. For example a trip from London to Scotland may be shorter by airplane, however staff are often more productive going by train.

Download Changing Gear (7.41 MB)

Seven steps to smarter travel

By using our seven steps to sustainable travel, businesses can save money, reduce CO2 emissions and improve the well-being of their employees.

We have compiled the evidence from case studies with a global retailer, a major insurance company, an IT services consultancy and an international bank to help you reduce the negative impacts of business travel.

The Rail Partnership

The Rail Partnership is an alliance between Global Action Plan, Business, East Coast Trains, Virgin Trains and ScotRail that launched in 2013. Together we have worked with companies to rethink when to travel, how to travel, and how to measure the impact of travel across an organisation.

Changing Gear builds on our first travel report Business in Motion, published in 2012.



Some extracts from the

“Changing Gear: Taking Business Travel into the 21st Century” report:

Download Changing Gear (7.41 MB)


The Problem of Business Travel:

Despite huge advancements in sustainability practices and communications technologies over the past 30 years, UK organisations have made little or no progress on the business travel agenda.

We still default to face-to-face meetings and reward ‘high fliers’ with air miles, company cars and fuel cards. The more important you are, the further we fly you. We drive to work every day because “that’s just what we do”, and while travel unquestionably has a necessary role to play in delivering business growth, the context has changed significantly, in a way that can no longer be ignored.

Today we are all aware that travel has a hugely damaging impact on our environment, air quality, congestion within our local communities, on employee stress and work-life balance, and an ever-increasing cost on the bottom line. We are even facing reporting and regulatory pressure, yet still progress is limited.

So we asked “why?”

Clearly, business travel continues to exist because it serves a purpose. In today’s global and complex organisations, it plays an essential role in relationship development, team cohesion and knowledge building. however, technology, context and expectations have transformed over the past three decades, while travel behaviours have remained stagnant. naturally there are times when meeting in person saves a thousand emails but there are also many instances when the eight hour flight simply wasn’t worth it, the face-to-face meeting would have been quicker and more productive online, and too much of our
working week is spent in the car, rather than doing our job. unless we investigate our travel behaviours and understand how they can best serve our 21st Century organisation, we cannot claim to be operating smartly or effectively.

Throughout our research we found attitudes towards business travel to be simplistic,
regarding it as either a good or bad activity.

Those in the ‘good’ camp will avoid the issue altogether, and those in the ‘bad’ favour banning travel for as long as is permissible to do so.

These approaches can work in the short term but ultimately result in little substantive change, and leave both business and employees feeling the tension of an unsolved problem. This is where we stepped in.

We started by re-framing the question.

Instead of “how can we stop business travel?” we ask “why do we travel, where does it add value, and how can we reduce its negative impact?” This opens up a whole new opportunity for organisations to innovate and think smarter. This paper outlines how to approach the question differently and how to implement your answer in an achievable, sustainable way that adds value to your business.


The majority of people interviewed perceived the quickest option as the most productive, UK flights as quicker than rail, and driving as a productive and safe mode of travel. Our work shows these assumptions to be false but without understanding these myths and identifying viable alternative options that are quicker, safer and more productive, initiatives are unlikely to work.

if 50% of travel could be cut by half through clients utilizing teleconferencing and video conferencing, not only would there be reduced travel time and financial expenditure, we could be more productive and have a better work life balance.

Think Again

The more valuable your time, the less productively you travel. Senior employees are more likely to fly and drive in the UK instead of travelling by train or using video-conferencing.

Travel is a high risk, high impact, high cost activity that, through lack of centralised data and analysis, most companies know little about.

Young talent increasingly cites work-life balance and sustainability as major considerations for employer choice, yet we still reward ‘high fliers’ with company cars, personal car parking spaces and air miles.

Business travel impacts every employee in the organisation, yet many travel policies don’t have a named owner.


Business travel is managed and measured from a risk and cost perspective but we justify it by the value we think it creates.

Why do people travel:

The strong face to face culture to provide excellent service drove frequent business travel. Whilst 100% of those frequent travelers interviewed felt confident using the Video Conferencing facilities available, the diversity of the three businesses meant not all sites interfaced with each other.

The current high-end video conference offering was suite-based rather than desk-based, limited by oversubscription. in some areas travel was required to clients in remote locations, necessitating frequent car use.

Flights are chosen with regards to schedule and nearest airports – nothing else. Carbon footprint doesn’t come into the process at all.

Fear Factor:

Listening to bookers and travelers from regional offices highlighted the ‘Fear factor’ of travelling to the london hQ via public transport. This resulted in behaviours such as taking a 40 mile taxi into the city, despite excellent wifi-enabled, quick and easy public transport links.

I wouldn’t know what to do when I got to London. I would just get a taxi so I don’t have to think about how to get there – I’ve never taken the underground before, I wouldn’t’ know what to do.
Informed choices:

Fifty percent suggested they would like to consider carbon emissions when booking and a number did not feel confident they knew the current travel policy. A desire for more information from all interviewees highlights the mis-alignment of travel compared to the established ‘green’ culture elsewhere in the business.

To make more sustainable travel choices, I need to be provided with the information – what are the more sustainable options?

Replacing travel with technology

The established use of video Conferencing internationally has begun to cascade to the regional offices. Celebrating best practice can help establish new social norms, for example 22% of the Video Conferencing within one regional office was direct to London, replacing 15 train journeys, helping drive productivity and reduce costs. Examples such as these are important to build confidence and empower employees in an organisation with a range of IT abilities.
Who travels?

From conversations with the frequent travellers it became clear that as a consultancy company the demand from clients for visibility at their sites is crucial to the business, and therefore travel culture.

“We need to be with customers, that is what is important.”
Valuing productivity:

Of those interviewed, two thirds mentioned the importance of personal productivity when choosing travel methods. however when explored, this meant arriving at their destination quickly to allow them to be more productive at their client site rather than during the journey or through the day end to end.

There was also a commonly voiced perception that the internet connection on trains was insufficient for the productivity required.

“Using the internet on trains is ‘unworkable’ and a ‘waste a time’. Travel by plane is more
comfortable and quicker.”

Culture of video conferencing:

As an iT consultancy, advanced telecommunications, online meetings, desktop sharing, web and video conferencing are part of the organisation. There was 100% awareness of video and teleconferencing across those interviewed with the majority feeling confident with its use. Video conferencing equipment comes ‘as standard’ within all main organisational offices and an overarching ‘conference call culture’ exists within the organisation.
“If clients were to get into the 21st century i.e. teleconferencing then i could cut my travel in
half – it’s frustrating.”

Download Changing Gear (7.41 MB)