Comment: Is this the end of in-person business meetings?

We need not choose between meetings and minimising our carbon footprint, argues Avi Meir of TravelPerk

After a period of hybrid working, it has become clear that in-person meetings are vital for businesses to thrive.

In-person meetings help establish and maintain relationships, make space and time for creative thinking, and encourage collaboration between employees and with clients. In short, the meetings that matter happen in person.

However, the pandemic has forced organisations to consider the environmental impact of all activity and that includes how and when they bring colleagues together. Sustainability has grown as a priority among staff, prospective hires, partners and investors. Businesses are working to incorporate sustainability goals into broader business goals and ultimately shape decision-making.

All of which presents a challenge: how can business leaders satisfy environmental concerns while preserving the benefits of in-person interactions?

The first step is to look at how you travel. For many businesses, the default choice is to travel by air. For long-haul journeys, this makes sense, but elsewhere there are often better alternatives. One worth exploring is rail.

While it is more sustainable, that is not the only reason. Travelling by train may seem slower than air travel, but travellers often save time on journeys as they avoid going through the hassle of security and checking in luggage. Instead, they can remain connected to the web from a comfortable environment and work while commuting from city centre to city centre.

What’s more, thanks to advancements in technology and investment across providers, rail is set to grow as the more appealing choice among business travellers. A new generation of rail providers are emerging, pioneering Rail 2.0.

Take Midnight Trains as an example, with which TravelPerk shares a partnership. It is reinventing rail travel with its ‘hotel on rails’ concept – with services across Europe, comfortable private rooms, a high-end restaurant experience and range of digital services, all delivered on a carbon budget many orders of magnitude smaller than the same trip taken by air.

Pick your travel moments

Next, companies should ask why they travel, and what their motivations are. What does ‘strategic travel’ look like, and do you plan in-person moments effectively?

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where, having travelled to attend an event or meeting, we end up being unproductive. We’re stuck doing things that aren’t maximising our time on the ground or not contributing to the business – a sign that the trip wasn’t strategic.

The best way to avoid these situations and focus on travel that matters is to plan ahead and keep your business goals front of mind. What do you want your business to achieve in the next 12 months?

Is it new product launches? Building a fresh network of business prospects? Whatever it is, think about the specific moments and ways that in-person meetings can supercharge your responses to those challenges.

That might mean convening a hackathon or brainstorm for your product engineers, combined with a team bonding session. Get them around a table, collaborating and riffing off each other in a way that is impossible via Zoom.

Or if it’s driving business leads that matters, get the key people from your side and theirs in a room together and invest time in building solid relationships – the type that don’t result from glitchy, pixelated video calls.

Once you’ve identified these key catalysing moments, don’t be afraid to do away with the rest so you’re only travelling when it matters. That is a sustainable approach that delivers for your business.

Keep yourselves accountable

Once you’ve taken a closer look at how and why, the next step is to put in place structures to track your performance over time and your ambitions for the future.

Anyone who has tried to lose weight or get fit will tell you it’s not just the exercise that matters, it’s how you track that information and hold yourself to account.

The same is true of building a sustainable travel model. Businesses should get in the habit of collecting and storing information which paints a clear picture of what and how they’re doing.

This could include policies on sustainable travel (e.g. all domestic trips should be rail rather than air); commitments to improve on key metrics over time (e.g. the date by which your business will reach net zero); or information you’ve gathered on employees’ attitudes (e.g. staff surveys) and, most important, steps the business has taken and how it’s measuring up against its goals and commitments.

This information is useful internally so you can see your progress, but it is also invaluable in demonstrating to customers, potential hires, partners or investors that you’re taking serious action.

People are social animals and we’re always going to need to travel and meet. But with the planet warming, the time has passed when we can do so without factoring in our effect on the climate.

Yet we needn’t pick between in-person moments and minimising our carbon footprint. By examining how we travel, why we travel and tracking our actions over time, we can strike a balance that will allow businesses – and the planet – to thrive.

Avi Meir is chief executive and co-founder of business travel platform TravelPerk

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