Business travel is back and it’s weirder than ever before

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Business travel is back. Emirates’ Airbus A380 superjumbos are two-thirds full in the posh seats. “Everybody who thinks business is going to be done in future on Zoom needs to think again,” says Tim Clark, the airline’s CEO.
He predicts global passenger numbers will recover to 2019 levels – four billion – in the next two to three years. But the recovery will be slow and patchy. Infection rates in most cities in the US and western Europe mean it will take time for business travel to pick up in these regions – and it will likely be years before the meetings and conferences sector recovers fully.


Ask the super-rich, who usually live a gilded bubble. The high point of their annual calendar, the World Economic Forum, was cancelled twice last year – first in its traditional home in Davos in the Swiss Alps, then in a proposed local alternative location, Lucerne-Bürgenstock. It will take place this year in May but in much warmer climes: Singapore.
The WEF’s move east is the first strike in what is becoming one of the most unusual battles sparked by the pandemic. The race is on to become the world’s “safe space” – a low-risk Covid environment for meetings and conferences. There are two contenders: Singapore and Dubai.
Singapore wants to leverage its infamously strict social rules and reputation for hi-tech efficiency to win the battle. “People are looking around for a safe place to fly to and meet and we’re confident Singapore can be that place,” says Chan Chun Sing, Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry.
Early lockdown and the city state’s rigorous test and trace system that has brought the virus under control quickly tempted the WEF to move to the Lion City. The fact that Singapore Airlines is often acclaimed as the world’s best carrier and hyper-efficient Changi airport is often voted the world’s best airport, helped to seal the deal.


But Singapore has competition from another small city state, with its own spiffy airline and airport, strict social controls, good international hospitals and much more beachfront: Dubai. To gee up business travel, Emirates’ boss Clark is offering travel insurance, including Covid cover, for travellers; while Paul Griffiths, former boss of London Gatwick who now runs Dubai International Airport, is offering all arriving passengers a free Covid-19 PCR test.
Government ministers point out that, thanks to the city state’s young population, strict rules on social distancing and mask wearing and the outdoor lifestyle, Covid-19 infection rates remain low – despite recent rises. The UAE has recorded fewer than 1,000 deaths among its 9.5 million population. A fast vaccine roll-out – second only to Israel – means almost all inhabitants, including migrant workers, will be inoculated by the end of this year, ministers say.
Both Singapore and Dubai offer business travellers the chance to use testing to replace quarantine, which more than anything has nixed business travel. Those travelling for business do not have the time to sit around in a hotel room for days on end.
To test both the Asian and Middle Eastern models of safe travel, I visited Singapore in November to interview Minister Chan and attend TravelRevive, the first large conference in Asia since March. Some 1,000 socially distanced delegates met to discuss the future of travel. Then earlier this month I flew to Dubai to interview Clark and Griffiths.


To take advantage of Singapore’s new Safe Travel Pass, I had to have a negative PCR test two to three days before leaving London and another on arrival at Changi, which has just completed construction of a laboratory that can handle 10,000 tests a day. The UK tests are expensive – around £150 a go – and uncomfortable.
Before leaving, I also had to fill out my arrival forms online – paper immigration forms have been replaced by online ones to create a “touch-free airport”. I flew in on a Singapore Airlines Airbus A350 and when I got off I had to download a tracing app on my iPhone to gain entry to any public building or transport hub – as well as to receive a warning if I had been near someone who tested positive.
I was bussed from Changi airport to my hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, where I had to remain in my room for a few hours until I got my test result. I got it – negative – by email five hours after landing and was free to go out in the city and use Covid-safe taxis to meet contacts at approved Covid-safe hotels and restaurants. I had to have a nasal swab antigen test every morning of the TravelRevive conference.
Anyone staying longer than a few days can have a third PCR test a week after arrival, which, if negative, gives them the freedom to go wherever they want within the country. It worked. I tested negative throughout my trip and five days after my return to London.
Dubai has a head start over Singapore when it comes to getting there and back. Not only is it in a more convenient time zone for most business travellers, Emirates is one of the few carriers still flying the A380 superjumbo. Clark is committed to refurbishing and reintroducing all the 117 superjumbos in his airline’s fleet on all major routes at a cost of $500m. Singapore Airlines is flying smaller jets and reducing the size of its A380 fleet by one third to just 12 jets. The sheer size of the superjumbo makes social distancing on board easier. (And you can have a shower if you are sitting in the really big seats.)
Dubai Airport also has better tech than Changi. It has been paperless for years and anyone with an e-passport can register on arrival to use the contactless electronic immigration gates. It uses iris and facial recognition to make entry to Emirates’ business and first class lounges contactless. Emirates is also pioneering, with the International Air Transport Association, the IATA Travel Pass – a mobile ‘digital passport’ to verify passengers’ pre-travel Covid-19 tests and vaccination status to meet the entry requirements of every destination.
Dubai Airport’s Covid PCR tests are airside, rather than landside like in Changi. It feels safer to get it done before clearing immigration and reclaiming bags. Dubai is more relaxed when it comes to quarantine. You don’t have to self-isolate after landing until you get your test result. I went straight to work – meeting contacts outside at a safe distance for the few hours until my negative test result came through. I did not have to have daily tests while in the city state.
Dubai’s hotels are on par with those in Singapore – the Burj al-Arab is its Raffles. But it has a climactic advantage. Since it almost never rains and is warm but not humid from October through May, events and meetings can be held outdoors, which makes it much safer for everyone – guests and staff.
When it comes to leaving, Dubai has the edge because business class passengers have an almost private, socially distanced experience from kerbside arrival in an Emirates chauffeur-driven car, to check in, to lounge, to boarding. Business travellers board direct on to the Upper Deck of the A380 from the lounges that themselves are one storey above the airport’s main concourse.
Is Singapore’s travel fling better than Dubai’s desert dream? Singapore’s testing regime is stricter, so if Covid safety is your number one priority the Lion City may be for you, and is certainly a wise choice for the WEF. If however, you feel comfortable with slightly less rigorous testing, love the idea of an outdoor conference and, as many passengers do, have a weakness for the A380, you can head to the souk. Either way, safe travels.

Digital Society is a digital magazine exploring how technology is changing society. It’s produced as a publishing partnership with Vontobel, but all content is editorially independent. Visit Vontobel Impact for more stories on how technology is shaping the future of society.

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