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Economic uncertainty dampens U.S. business travel growth

Unlike past recoveries, job growth is not driving business travel expansion.

ALEXANDRIA – Economic turmoil in Europe, slower growth in China and U.S. unemployment are expected to curb business travel growth in the United States through the end of the year, according to the latest GBTA BTI™ Outlook – United States, a report from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) sponsored by Visa, Inc. With disappointing job gains and the upcoming Presidential election on the horizon, businesses appear to be taking a cautious approach to their investment in travel until there is greater economic certainty.  

GBTA now expects total U.S. business travel spending to grow 2.6% for 2012, reaching $257 billion by the end of the year. While this is a moderate increase since last quarter, when GBTA estimated growth for 2012 at 2.2%, the uptick in spend is largely being driven by rising business travel costs. Total business trip volume is expected to reach 438.1 million for 2012 – a reduction of -1.6% from 2011, when total business trip volume was 445 million.

Looking ahead to 2013, GBTA research forecasts business travel spend will grow 4.9%, reaching $270 billion – which is a slight upgrade from the 4.7% growth in 2013 that GBTA forecast last quarter. Total trip volume is expected to fall -1.1% in 2013.  

Corporations are in a wait-and-see mode and holding back on investment decisions that would help boost the economy,” said Michael W. McCormick, GBTA executive director and COO. “While companies aren’t cutting their business travel spend and we’re still seeing very modest growth, we are cautious about the outlook for the next several quarters. The looming ‘fiscal cliff’ is causing even more uncertainty, which we are monitoring with real concern. This is an economy in need of some good news to shore up business confidence and encourage more travel.

While it appears that the current economy is weighing on the minds of travelers, for the first half of this year, we saw U.S. and international travelers increasing their spend on Visa accounts,” said Tad Fordyce, head of global commercial solutions at Visa Inc. “From January to June of 2012, international travelers increased travel spend on their Visa accounts by nine percent in the U.S. to $20.1 billion. U.S. travelers were also active for the first six months, increasing travel spend on their Visa accounts by seven percent to $17 billion. 2012 has the ability to be the year of the traveler if we can continue this momentum of business and leisure travel.”  

For 2012, GBTA now forecasts that transient travel spend will advance by 2.9%, group spend by 2.3%, and international outbound business spend – previously a major driver of overall travel spending growth – by 2.5%. These forecasts are expected to remain constrained unless overall economic momentum increases significantly.

New jobs aren’t generating more travel – so far

The GBTA BTI™ Outlook has consistently shown that business travel spending is a one to two quarter leading indicator of domestic job growth. However, this report finds that job composition is different in this recovery compared with previous ones, particularly from the perspective of business travel. Job creation has been concentrated in sectors that are less travel prone. New retail, restaurant, and manufacturing workers tend to travel much less than their business service, financial or utility industry counterparts. As a result, business travel is not getting the bounce from employment growth in this recovery that was typical of past expansions.

The darkest cloud on the economic horizon is the so-called fiscal cliff, a combination of more than $500 billion in expiring tax cuts and automatic spending sequestration set to trigger at the beginning of 2013. If nothing is done to soften or delay these actions, the economy will almost certainly backslide into recession. GBTA is currently developing a scenario analysis of the fiscal cliff and its impact on U.S. business travel that will be published soon.

GBTA BTI™ — Improving modestly

The GBTA BTI™, a proprietary index of business travel activity, came in at 118 for Q2 2012, one point higher than the projected value in GBTA’s previous outlook. The slightly higher value has been driven by slow but growing domestic GDP and corporate profits.

GBTA is predicting continued slow but steady growth over the forecast horizon, with the BTI™ hitting its former peak of 120 by the end of the year. The BTI™ is forecast to grow just over a point per quarter over the next six quarters.

International travel – growth slows as exports lag

International outbound travel has been a boon to the U.S. business travel industry over the last few years. However, the projected pace of growth in this sector has been constrained as economic worries in Europe persist and growth in the developing world continues to slow. For example, the volume of both imports and exports to China and the rest of the Far East is projected to slow over the next six quarters, leading to lower levels of business travel to and from the U.S.

GBTA projects international outbound spending to grow 2.5% in 2012, followed by a 7.7% rise in spending in 2013. In comparison, less than a year ago, the forecast was for growth of 5.5% and 11% in international outbound spend in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Revenue generating transient trips outpace meetings and events

Transient business travel continues to outpace group travel for meetings and events as firms focus on pushing resources towards short-term revenue generating activities given the numerous downside risks in the global economy. GBTA expects total transient spending to grow 2.9% in 2012 and 3.9% in 2013.

In contrast, group spending will grow more slowly in 2012, expanding 2.3%, although the projection is for 5.5% growth in 2013. Although group business travel has bounced back from its bottom in 2009, it has been a much more modest recovery over the last year after robust growth of 8.3% and 7.2% in 2010 and 2011, respectively. GBTA expects growth to pick up as the broader economy recovers, given the more cyclical nature of group and convention travel.