It’s not coming back: work travel

Airports may remain this abandoned for a while.

Every day when I walked into my old office I’d pass a couple dozen people waiting in the lobby for their assigned interviewers to come down and take them up to a conference room where they’d spend the day being grilled by 5-6 different people. 90% of them would not get a job offer. Most of them have to be flown in, get a night or two in a hotel, meals paid for, etc. In buildings around downtown Seattle and in further outlying areas this picture is repeated weekly.

I don’t know the numbers for certain, but I’d have to guess that my employer’s interviews alone account for over a hundred hotel rooms, a few hundred meals in local restaurants, and over a hundred seats on (mostly) Delta and Alaska, every day. The other big tech employer in the area probably accounts for about as much. And the dozens of smaller ones account for more.

That’s all gone

We switched to online video interviews in late February. I don’t have much insight, but my vague impression is that it’s been going well. In any case, I’m sure somebody is collecting the data and determining what does and doesn’t work. When this is over, we’ll have a very good picture of what interviews can or can’t be done remotely and the ones that can will never go back. Those flights, hotel rooms, restaurant meals and all the rest are history. Replaced, perhaps, by a much smaller percentage: the ones we extend offers to who might have the option of coming to visit before saying yes or no.

My buddy Griffith the Traveling Mountain Lion may miss coach travel. I surely will not.

Interviews are a stable piece of the travel my work pays for, but hardly the biggest. We’ve done all our meetings remotely in the past two months and that includes significant long-term departmental planning. Historically these have involved many people flying somewhere (my department operates across three geographies) to hold the week-long sessions. Will we ever do that again? Doubtful. Surely my director will fly to his various sites to meet people in person from time to time, and others may also travel as needed, but I suspect there will be a major and long-lasting clampdown on that kind of travel.

With tight restrictions on international travel still likely for some time, who wants to even try? Do you really want to be stuck halfway around the world or in a 14 day quarantine somewhere away from home because while you were away there was an outbreak?

Trade shows fall down. Go boom!

As far as most of us are concerned, good riddance.

Facebook has already announced that they don’t expect to hold any large events until after 2021. As with all these other things, once people figure out how to do business without spending weeks in convention centers in Vegas or wherever, and without spending small fortunes to host booths, hospitality suites and the like, will we go back?

Microsoft switched one of their big conferences to an online digital event. My employer moved one of its conferences online too. This has happened all around the tech space.

Last month, O’Reilly announced they were shutting down their tradeshow division. O’Reilly is famous for running expensive tech shows typically in “cooperation” with some tech organization or another. Last I looked at one, it was over $1600 for a small two-day conference. And that was for a “basic” package to one one of the cheaper ones, run on behalf of a nonprofit open-source project. The excess (and excessive costs) of these things has become legend. The only thing that’s gone up higher than the costs — from what I can tell — is the dissatisfaction of those of us who for one reason or another are forced to go.

The fact that they shut it down entirely suggests to me that they knew the business had already exhausted itself and that the Coronavirus shutdowns were the last straw to them, not the first. The first was probably the increasing shutout of participants from “certain countries” who have found it harder and harder to travel to these shows when they’re based in the U.S. For many of the big tech shows, international participants are a key driver of profitability and it was already being threatened. (That’s the reason a lot of conventions have moved from the US to Vancouver.) The likelihood of ongoing restrictions and inconveniences related to any international travel pulls the rug completely out from under these events.

It remains to be seen what will happen to more regional, professional, community-based events. Those can probably survive because they depend less on travel and more on the fact that they’re actually run by the people who want to attend them, not by somebody’s marketing department. I owe my current position to the people I’ve met at some of those, most specifically SCaLE. I hope they figure out a way to work things out. As they tend to be cheap and don’t involve lots of travel for most of the participants I kind of think they will. But they won’t help the big travel companies and the cities that support large shows.

The big splashy events that seemed to have jumped the shark already? (I mean seriously, last year we had a tech show with add-on music festival. If that wasn’t the sign of an impending collapse, what was?) The sponsors and participants may not really miss them and the excess they required. The impact will be felt by the the convention centers, hotels, restaurants, casinos, sex-workers, taxi drivers, and those who depend on them for work. For them it will be catastrophic.

The impact will be widespread

Even Griffith won’t miss the big Vegas shows.

If my employer and others like it decide to pull the plug on much of the excess around huge conventions (and I have no idea if this will be the case, but if the money is right, they will), it’ll be because the current environment has forced us to explorer options and we’ve decided there is better ROI elsewhere. We may benefit from this. Las Vegas could go bankrupt along with many of the people who depend on big business’s former largess.

The changes won’t be complete. Conventions and tradeshows won’t go away. But look at the profit margins of the big hotel/convention related businesses and the picture isn’t pretty. A relatively small decline in big tradeshow attendees paying top-dollar for rooms on the strip during a busy week can push a lot of those already debt-laden casino companies from the black to the red. The same is true in any other place that depends on a lot of business travel. A small reduction from the big spenders will be a catastrophe for them.