Global Business Travel Forecast 2023: Bookings, Spending and Optimism on the Upswing, GBTA Poll Shows

New research points to continued industry recovery, easing of supplier staffing constraints, and mixed outlook on China travel

Global business travel is forecast to see an uptick in 2023 versus 2022. Companies are expected to send more employees on trips and travel suppliers anticipate an increase in corporate travel spending. Sectors such as finance, insurance, professional services, and consulting are showing stronger signs of growth in business travel spending. Despite potential economic challenges and uncertainty surrounding the post-COVID return of China−the world’s largest business travel market–the industry remains optimistic about continued recovery and employees’ willingness to travel for work.

These are among the key insights from the Q1 2023 Business Travel Outlook Poll released today by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), the premier association serving the worldwide business travel industry. GBTA surveyed over 600 business travel buyers, suppliers, and industry professionals around the world, marking the 30th poll in its series tracking the ongoing evolution of business travel.

“GBTA continues to draw on the collective, diverse perspectives and insights across our industry to closely track the evolving state of global business travel. The return of business travel will vary across regions, sectors and companies. And despite ongoing global concerns of a recession, a majority of corporate travel managers indicate their companies are anticipating more business travel than last year,” said Suzanne Neufang, CEO, GBTA.

Here are the key takeaways from this latest GBTA poll:  

Back on the road and in the air − more business trips are expected in 2023.

  • Business leaders may anticipate a recession this year, but travel managers are anticipating more business travel.Three in four travel managers (78%) expect their company will take a lot more (22%) or more (55%) business trips in 2023 versus 2022.
  • Only 15% of travel managers expect to see the same levels of business travel as last year, and 7% expect fewer or a lot fewer trips.
  • An overwhelming 90% of respondents believe their employees are willing to travel for business, while 88% report feeling more optimistic about the path to recovery compared to last month.

Companies are also expected to increase their business travel spending.

  • Travel suppliers expect more business travel spending by their corporate customers in the year ahead. Almost nine in ten suppliers (86%) expect spending by corporate customers in 2023 will be much higher (26%) or somewhat higher (60%) compared to 2022. (This marks an increase from GBTA’s October 2022 poll where 80% of suppliers expected spending to increase.)
  • Nine percent expect corporate business travel spend to be about the same, and only 1% expect spending to be lower than in 2022. (In the October poll, 15% expected the same level of spending and 5% expected lower spending.)

Business travel bookings and spending continue making their way back to 2019 levels.

  • On average, travel buyers estimate their companies’ current domestic business travel bookings have returned to 67% of pre-pandemic 2019 levels (up from 63% in GBTA’s October poll). Travel buyers estimate their company’s current domestic business travel spend is back to 68% of their 2019 spend levels.
  • International business travel continues to gain ground. (In January 2022, international business travel remained virtually at a standstill, with 59% of travel managers saying their company never or rarely allowed these trips.) In this poll, on average, travel buyers estimate international business travel bookings have recovered to 54%, up slightly from 50% in October. Current spending for international trips is back to approximately 58%.

What industries are leading and lagging in returning to business travel spending?

  • When asked to assess the industries of their corporate clients where they’ve seen the strongest growth in business travel spending in 2022, travel suppliers cited their top three as: finance and insurance (34%); professional, consulting, scientific, and technical (32%); and software, hardware and technology (25%). These industries largely resumed travel last year after lagging other industries−such as manufacturing−in 2021.
  • When asked which industries have seen the weakest growth in travel spending last year, travel suppliers and travel management professionals cited: non-profits, associations, and foundations (35%); software, hardware, technology (24%); and educational services (22%).
  • Interestingly, the software, hardware and technology sector was cited as both leading and lagging in spending growth, indicating variances among companies and industries in terms of approaches, travel policies, and strategies.

Trip type and intent continue to drive business travel spending and approvals.

  • According to travel buyers the top areas for business travel spending in 2023 are sales/account management meetings with customers or prospects (28%); internal meetings with colleagues (20%); and conferences, trade shows and industry events (18%), which is largely consistent with GBTA’s June 2022 poll.
  • Rounding out the spending mix are customer service trips (14%); employee training or development (9%); and supplier meetings (6%).
  • During the pandemic, many travel programs implemented stricter pre-trip approval processes to manage risk. Add to that the desire to control costs or align to greener travel practices, and employee travel may now require additional approvals−such as from Risk, HR, senior leadership, finance or the travel or CSR departments. Twenty-two percent said pre-trip approval is required all the time for domestic travel and 34% said pre-trip approval is always required for international travel. An additional 20% said pre-trip approval was required some of the time for domestic or international travel.
  • However, half (49%) of travel buyers say pre-trip approval is never required for domestic business travel, while one-third (31%) say the same for international travel.

Staffing for travel suppliers is still suppressed but help may be on the way in 2023.

  • Travel suppliers and travel management companies were forced to reduce staff during the pandemic−even now, many of these companies are not yet fully re-staffed. Almost half of travel suppliers (47%) report their company’s staffing level is somewhat or much smaller than it was pre-pandemic, while 28% say it is about the same.
  • However, two in three travel suppliers (65%) expect staffing will increase a lot or somewhat in 2023 compared to 2022, while 26% expect no change.

Company travel programs hold their (pre-pandemic) ground when it comes to staffing.

  • While many travel suppliers emerged from the pandemic with fewer staff, the same has rarely happened with travel programs. The majority of buyers (78%) say their company’s travel program staff size in 2023 is expected to be about the same (56%) as it was pre-pandemic or will be much or somewhat larger (22%).
  • Many buyers also expect to increase spending for their travel program operations (such as staff salaries, technology, and consultants) in 2023 versus last year. Almost half of buyers (45%) expect their travel program budgets will be higher, while 41% expect them to be about the same as in 2022.

Industry sentiments are mixed on business travel and China.

  • As it opens its borders to travel, China has seen a rising number of COVID-19 cases and some countries−including the U.S., Italy and Japan−have re-introduced testing requirements for inbound passengers from China. Among all respondents, 56% support policies requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recent recovery in order to enter, while 18% believe requirements should be less strict, and 18% are uncertain. Of those supporting the policies, 54% were U.S.-based and 59% were non-U.S. based.
  • Almost half thought these policies would lead to a significant (15%) or moderate (37%) decrease in the amount of business travel to and from China, while one-quarter (26%) didn’t think there would be an impact and 18% were not sure.
  • One in four (24%) U.S. travel buyers report their company employees are typically allowed to travel to China, while 28% say employees are allowed but the company recommends against it. An additional third (29%) say employees are typically not allowed to travel to China and 19% are unsure.

Methodology: A total of 637 responses were received for the GBTA Q1 poll which was fielded from January 16-26, 2023. View the complete Q1 poll results and key highlights, as the full series of GBTA business travel industry recovery polls.