“It felt pretty normal” – My first business trip after COVID

By Avi Meir, TravelPerk Co-founder & CEO

After months lockdown, endless days of remote work, and thousands of hours on zoom calls, I finally tasted some normality with a bog-standard business trip to Berlin. Six months ago, this was a chore, but for this trip, I felt weirdly excited.

In my head, I could see scenes from a disaster movie, the long lines, staff in hazmat suits, and people spraying you from head to toe with disinfectant. However, the reality was a little more mundane and, surprisingly, efficient.

I had to relearn packing for short trips

So, as a seasoned business traveler, I normally travel light and go into autopilot when packing for business trips but after 4 months of lockdown, I had to relearn my packing protocol. After a few attempts, when I both under and overpacked I felt I got my formula right again. So, with hand gel at the ready (I’m considering buying a holster for quick-draw hand gel scenarios) and mask on, I embarked on my first business trip in 4 months.

Airports are starting to pick up again

Usually, airports are just a necessary evil to get to where you are going but I can honestly say, Barcelona Airport I’ve missed you, even your overpriced coffee.

Only passengers were allowed into the terminal and I had predicted long waits. So, I arrived 3.5 hours before my flight, feeling pretty smug about how prepared I was, no running through the terminal for me! It turns out 3.5 hours was a bit of an overestimation. I was through security and check-in within 50 minutes, with just a mere 3 hours to burn while waiting at my gate. I decided to look around for space to work.

Although the lounge was closed, some of the bars were open; it will take more than a global pandemic to keep a Spanish person away from coffee and Jamón Ibérico.

As I sat there catching up on some work, I glanced at the flight information board. There were around 100 flights leaving that day for European destinations and between that, my coffee, and the general buzz around the airport, I felt a surge of confidence that things were already approaching normality.

The flight itself: pretty chilled out

I think generally people feel most nervous about flying in the aftermath of coronavirus. It makes sense, being cooped up with strangers in a small space is never appealing. Think of the last time you were in an elevator (even pre-corona), at no point did you think “All these strangers so close to me, I hope this elevator lasts longer”. But I didn’t feel uncomfortable, the flight was only 50% full, everyone kept their masks on at all times – unless they were eating or drinking (there is for sure a market for a mask you can drink through), all in all, I felt very safe.

On a side note, if anyone is looking for a private jet, there’s a beautiful MD-87 that’s been parked in Barcelona since 2009, previously owned by the now-defunct Pronair Airlines. You will need a pretty big driveway, but I’m sure the airport would be happy if someone came to tow it away.

The flight was very calm, staff were clearly well briefed on corona-processes. To be honest, the plane was a much more chilled environment than I had expected. Plus, the view from 40,000 feet isn’t bad either.

Arrival in Berlin

Then it happened…when we landed officials rushed into the plane with 20 coronavirus-sniffer dogs and sprayed us in the face with disinfectant….no, not really. In fact, leaving the plane and getting out the airport was perfectly easy, quick, and well, normal. The biggest annoyance was that we had to take a bus to the terminal, Berliners assure me their new airport will be ready soon.

Hotels and Taxis

Ok, hotels have had a massive change, I’m sorry to be the one to deliver the news, but… breakfast buffet dishes had a plastic cover on them! So, in reality, no real change and to be honest, I think I prefer food to be covered when in public spaces, coronavirus or not. Apart from that, there were other small things, like you could request no cleaners to enter your room and the gym was closed. All the measures taken made me feel safe and like the hotel was taking the health of visitors seriously. Again, I’m repeating myself, but it was relatively normal.

The Taxi experience was standard, I got to show the driver I don’t speak German and he politely worked out where I needed to go. Apart from wearing my mask, it was business as usual.

Meeting business partners and staff

Again, it all felt just fine. We did the usual social distancing where possible, we avoided handshakes, met in open-air bars or maintained some distance. But what I realized during these meetings was how much we miss from not having face-to-face encounters.

In short, nothing beats sitting down with a customer, sharing a pretzel and beer, and having a conversation.

Business travel back!

So, what can I say about my first business trip in 4 months? First of all, it felt completely normal. Sure, some small changes have taken place, but all these made me feel like the staff were taking my health seriously and there was nothing that impacted my travel experience negatively.

Secondly, I realized how much I’ve missed actually chatting with the staff, partners, and customers in-person. I don’t think it’s even up for debate, we need human interaction. Sure, Zoom or Hangouts (Other video call software is available) are great for transactional calls, or an email will suffice for a round-up but after meeting our partners and team, I felt I got a lot more out of a face-to-face chat. I assume it’s to do with body language, micro-expressions, and the sense of place that gets lost on a zoom call. For that reason alone, I know that business travel will be back soon, maybe even sooner than expected. In the meantime, I will be developing a hand gel holster and a mask with a built-in straw.

I will keep writing about the recovery of business travel, my take on COVID-19, and the global business travel market. Make sure to follow me on Twitter and TravelPerk on LinkedIn and Travelperk Twitter to stay up to date. In case you didn’t read it yet, find my earlier predictions on when business travel is going to recover and how it will look different than before here, and the rating of my own predictions a couple of weeks later here.