Kiwi business travellers are dipping their feet in international trips and it's a matter of "when not if" they return in big numbers, says Keeley Alton, general manager of Corporate Traveller.
The Flight Centre group business has seen some cautious growth already since isolation requirements were dropped for returning New Zealanders and further relaxation of border rules would mean more flights and help boost confidence to travel internationally.
The Omicron outbreak had hammered domestic travel but Alton says that as the wave passes, corporate travel is gradually coming back around the country. Domestic business bookings are about 80 per cent of Corporate Traveller's business and had been strong last year whenever there was little Covid-19 in the community.
She said international volumes were around 20 per cent to 30 per cent of what they were pre-pandemic but there were signs of a strong recovery.
Travel agents suffered badly when the pandemic hit but stand to do well out of the recovery as more complications around global travelling mean more businesses, small ones in particular, are using consultants to organise their trips.
DIY travel is getting harder and can cost much more in the long run, said Alton.
''We're talking (to them) about how important duty of care and compliance is when you're sending your employees overseas. It is not simple to book an international trip anymore - using a travel management company can help you facilitate that and to maximise the dollars.''
She said entry requirements and vaccination rules were changing almost daily.
While changes already in place and coming to New Zealand were "100 per cent better than MIQ", there were still some impediments to travel - and confidence has been dented.
While many countries are scrapping requirements for pre-departure tests for entry, they were still in place for New Zealand.
For some firms sending their staff overseas that means a short trip of four days could grow to around 14 if they have a positive Covid test.
"Quite a lot of travel to the US and Europe where those restrictions are lifting takes the pain out of the outbound journey but there can be inbound complication to come home," said Alton.
When Australia announced in the last week that it would drop the pre-entry testing requirement, there was an immediate bump in transtasman activity.
Corporate Traveller consultants say customers want to see consistency in this country.
"They want to see continuity for a few months with the Government not snap shutting the borders again and actually standing by their plan to open up the world."
The shortage of airline capacity to this country had pushed up fares but those travelling now were not price-conscious, she said. They're booking fully flexible fares and prepared to pay extra for premium seats where there is more comfort which will be welcomed by airlines whose business class cabins can be highly profitable - when full.
Small and medium enterprise (SME) customers who may have previously done two or three trips a year are rolling travel into one longer journey with multiple stops.
"We're not sure if that's a trend that will continue but there's that pent-up demand out there."
Sports teams and athletes travelling to events overseas had been quick out of the blocks while government travel had been slower to get going as organisations work out travel policies.
Alton said with airline capacity set to increase in coming months as border restrictions ease and tourists return, the corporate travel rebound is expected to further accelerate.
"As airline capacity increases and flight prices become more competitive, more New Zealand companies will be jumping at the chance to take their business to the world."
Pre-pandemic 29 international airlines operated at Auckland Airport, connecting to 45 destinations. As at the end of March, 14 airlines fly internationally to 25 destinations. Several have indicated they will return and last week Latam resumed flights between Santiago, Chile and Sydney which call at Auckland.
Alton expects bleisure - combining work trips with leisure travel - to continue to grow strongly as business people take their overseas-travel-starved families overseas.
Overseas, optimism about corporate travel is returning strongly, particularly in the United States. A survey of 460 businesses by the Global Business Travel Association in February found three in four (78 per cent) of supplier and travel management company (TMC) professionals surveyed felt optimistic about the business travel industry's path to recovery, up from 54 per cent who reported being optimistic in the January poll.
The percentage of respondents who report non-essential domestic business travel is sometimes or usually allowed increased to 73 per cent in February, compared to 66 per cent in January.
And among those surveyed, most (68 per cent) anticipate they will want to travel about the same amount or more as they did before the pandemic in the future. An additional third (30 per cent) say they want to travel "somewhat or much less" than they did before the pandemic.
On average, travel buyers in the US say their company's business travel bookings are at 33 per cent of their pre-pandemic level, while travel suppliers report their business travel bookings are back to 42 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels.