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Brendan King, CEO of VendAsta Technologies Inc.Liam Richards/The Globe and Mail

Brendan King remembers being on the road for the bulk of his working hours, until COVID-19 brought all travel to a screeching halt.

The client base of his Saskatoon-based software firm is overwhelmingly American, so he was worried when he couldn’t meet them through face-to-face travel any more. But the Vendasta Technologies Inc. chief executive discovered that it didn’t matter.

By conducting business virtually, Mr. King was able to sustain relationships with his clients. It also prompted him to re-evaluate what kind of travel was necessary. “This has changed the calculus,” he said.

Starting late July 5, eligible Canadian travellers who are fully vaccinated and have negative COVID-19 test results and symptoms will be able to enter Canada without having to go through mandatory hotel stays and home quarantines.

While non-essential business travel may soon be in the cards, Corporate Canada is not off to the airports just yet. According to Mr. King: “We’re not going to run and get on a plane right away.”

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The pandemic has prompted many companies to reconsider their business travel strategies. According to the Global Business Travel Association, business travel in Canada dropped by 51 per cent in 2020. As restrictions ease and vaccinations speed up, business leaders are having conversations about what’s next. For some, it’s a restless waiting game until borders reopen. But for many, a hybrid approach to travel may be the new normal.

Magnet Forensics, a digital investigative software firm based in Waterloo, Ont., is one such company. CEO Adam Belsher said that while he expects the company’s future travel budget to return to prepandemic levels soon, the priority areas will shift. Last year, Magnet Forensics successfully adapted its annual conference, which was to take place in Tennessee, to a virtual format, prompting a rethink of the company’s physical structure. Now, with more employees working remotely, their business travel strategy will focus on bringing teams of employees from offices around Canada and abroad together for in-person projects.

Vendasta, too, is working on a new framework. Mr. King said travel to clients would be necessary in a scenario where they are competing for a contract, but in cases where clients are satisfied, travel could be reduced. He added that it will be the responsibility of CEOs to rein in the instincts of employees who are eager to travel.

“Some of these sales guys want to get back on the road, because that’s what they do. But the value is not there, so we’re not going to do it. I’m saying, as a CEO, we’re not going to do that,” he said.

In other sectors, however, company leaders can’t wait to get their employees back on a plane. Chris Lynes, senior vice-president of corporate brands at Flight Centre Travel Group, said bookings have picked up substantially in the past few weeks, and he sees a full calendar of corporate events being scheduled from January onward.

For Karima-Catherine Goundiam, CEO at digital marketing firm Red Dot Digital Inc., there is no alternative to in-person travel. Before the pandemic, Ms. Goundiam estimates that she spent half of the year travelling for work, visiting destinations including London, Paris, Dubai and Kuwait to meet clients. However, she is most eager to resume her international speaking engagements.

“That’s where I found the most limitation over the last year. As a speaker, I feed from the energy of people in front of me, off the interaction and engagement. Doing it through a Zoom meeting is not necessarily something that I enjoy, and it’s definitely something that I would be willing to travel for.”

Also among those eager to travel in full force are employees whose work depends on being in a physical environment or with equipment, such as construction and engineering companies. As president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, Dennis Darby spent last year advocating for those industries to retain their essential status, but travel was still reduced substantially.

“It’s been unpredictable. With mandatory quarantines, it hasn’t been glamorous for people travelling right now,” Mr. Darby said. “And we know that they have lost businesses because Canada’s rules have been tougher than most.”

Now, he said, the pending easing of border restrictions will make an immediate difference for companies whose work is hands-on.

For PCL Construction, a company with operations based in Canada, the U.S. and Australia, the first step in easing travel restrictions is welcome news. CEO Dave Filipchuk said the move will help Canadians in the construction business to return from work trips. But he said there will still be hurdles. For one, other countries, such as Australia, have stricter travel restrictions.

Mike Greenley, CEO of MDA Ltd. (maker of the iconic Canadarm), said he expects his company’s travel to resume to normal levels as soon as restrictions are lifted. Although the company embraced virtual work in 2020, successfully going public and onboarding more than 350 new hires online, with clients in 25 countries requiring site visits and meetings, Mr. Greenley said his company will likely return to the same levels of travel as before and maintain the same budget.

However, other types of corporate gatherings might take longer to bounce back. Industry experts expect that trade shows won’t return in full force until at least the spring of 2022, for instance.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said the easing of travel restrictions after July 5 will only help a very small subset of the business community – fully vaccinated Canadian citizens and permanent residents travelling for essential business.

“If you’re having a conference and you want to have a speaker or delegates coming in from the United States, they can’t come in. Similarly, we have restrictions on travelling in Canada. It’s easier at this point to vacation in Tuscany than it is to take a car trip through the Maritimes,” said Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Restaurant Canada’s trade show, which last year drew more than 20,500 attendees, was the last big trade show in Toronto before the pandemic shutdown. Now, its in-person return has been set for 2022 in Toronto.

Troy Taylor, vice-president of operations at Restaurants Canada, expects that the event will operate at 80-per-cent capacity, drawing 40 per cent of its vendors from outside Ontario or overseas.

Companies who attend trade shows often depend on those events as their primary method of generating revenue throughout the year, making their return a certainty, Mr. Taylor said. And yet, he recognizes that the pandemic has prompted many companies to embrace digital technology in ways they previously hadn’t – meaning that while trade shows will continue, other day-to-day travel could be reduced.

“I’m not sure if business travel will ever be the way it was, maybe ever,” he said.

While Canada’s hotel sector sees a seasonal spike in tourists during the summer, business events and corporate travel sustain the industry the rest of the year. The Hotel Association of Canada estimates that prepandemic levels of revenue will not be reached until 2025.

Alana Baker, Director of Government Relations for the Hotel Association of Canada.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

“We know for certain that there are no fully programmed major corporate events on the books for this fall. And so effectively, our downtown hotels are virtually sitting empty,” said Alana Baker, vice-president of policy and public affairs at the association.

Kyle Handfield, CEO at Affinity Integrated Service & Supply, said he’s realized that the component of in-person work that was always deemed so important could be overvalued. His company spent last year seeking funds to buy and consolidate restaurant equipment companies in the U.S. After raising more investments in one day through online meetings than he could have done in four weeks in-person, he said his eyes have been opened to the possibility of remote work.

“Something that I’ve seen first-hand, and seen resonate through the rest of the community, is those deals that used to require an in-person touch have gotten so normalized over online video calls.”

However, he feels confident that in the future, important relationship-building meetings, such as for securing funding, will happen in person.

Mark Skapinker, managing partner at Toronto-based venture capital firm Brightspark Ventures, agreed. He said he invested in two companies in the past few months without meeting either of the business owners, but plans to return to corporate travel once restrictions are lifted.

“It’s such an important aspect of our work,” Mr. Skapinker said. “We really treasure the opportunity of spending face-to-face time with the people we are investing in.”

However, for some, curbing business travel isn’t just about maintaining professional relationships – it’s about valuing the personal ones, too.

Prior to the pandemic, Jack Newton, CEO of legal software company Clio, said he had an intense travel schedule. He was travelling one or two weeks a month to offices in Dublin and across Canada.

“My litmus test would always be that if I hit Super Elite status with Air Canada, that probably meant I was travelling too much and needed to buy a nice bouquet of flowers for my wife,” Mr. Newton said.

Now, he said he can’t imagine going back to the same intensity of travelling. With his company taking on a hybrid work approach, cutting trips is about more than just efficient and environmental work – it’s about balance, too.

“On a personal level, I realized how much I was missing out with my family. I’ve got three school-aged kids that I love spending time with, and that family time is something I don’t think I really appreciated. The impact of being around every day is something I’ve really enjoyed.”

With a report from Eric Atkins in Toronto

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