Corporate Travel Buyers Face Perilous Exposure to Industry’s $540 Billion Debt

Skift Take

Airlines, hotels, taxi firms and travel management companies owe more than half a trillion dollars. Here’s how companies can offset price surges as their suppliers look to pay off mounting debts.

Company travel buyers face years of rising prices due to an industry “debt mountain” that today exceeds half a trillion dollars.

According to a former travel buyer-turned-consultant, the debt totals $540 billion — a figure that mostly covers airlines, hotels, ground transportation firms and travel management companies.

Some $490 billion of that amount stems from government and bank loans, plus cash injections from venture capitalists, private equity and hedge funds.

Sector wise, global airline debt totals $350 billion; hotels $110 billion; ground transport companies $20 billion; and corporate travel agencies $10 billion, calculated Mark O’Brien, managing partner of Avenue5 Consulting.

The debt also includes travel and mobility tech startups which have secured $48 billion in investment, mostly from venture capital firms. An estimated 2,800 companies received investments during 2021, O’Brien said. This figure was the largest amount invested in the last 10 years, and 15 percent up on the amount seen in 2019, he added.

“We live in a world where the word billions doesn’t surprise us any more,” said O Brien. “But to put that number into context, it’s higher than the economies of Belgium and Portugal combined, or 7 percent the size of the U.S. economy.”

The numbers were based on public reports and financial statements, alongside data from the likes of Moody’s, Bloomberg, Fitch and S&P Global. Of course, with such a large scope it’s impossible to get a truly accurate picture, but O’Brien argued it was important for corporate travel buyers to understand the bigger picture, and the commercial pressures that suppliers now face, as it can help prepare them for future price shocks, and help these suppliers with their own recovery.

Payback Time

Companies must now get ready for price surges as governments, banks and investors start asking for their money back.

Travel prices may appear low compared to 2019, for now at least, because suppliers are looking to encourage people to travel again. However, as the recovery gets under way and demand exceeds supply, the travel industry will be under pressure to seek out profits. “That debt has to be serviced, and investors obviously expect a return on their investment … that debt can’t just sit there,” O’Brien said during an inaugural Consultant’s Corner virtual event, called “The Debt Mountain of the Travel Supplier EcoSystem — How this Impacts the Travel Buyer,” hosted by the UK’s Institute of Travel Management.

First, buyers can expects to see their corporate travel agencies, which traditionally operate on low margins, refresh their pricing models. They’re likely to accelerate shifting their business model away from transaction fees to a management fee-based model, and share risks in case of any further downturn.

Airlines will also push up air fares on key routes, up between 3.5 and 4.5 percent on 2019 levels by the third quarter of this year. But at the same time they will pass on further increases due to their investment costs in sustainable aviation fuel and due to airports putting up their landing fees.

On the hotel side, O’Brien said rates could be up to 5 to 9 percent in the third quarter of this year, compared to 2019 levels.

When it comes to budgeting, a company that typically spent $20 million on travel can expect to see that rise by $875,000 to $1.1 million in the future. At the top end, a company that once spent $250 million on its travel program would see an increase of $8.5 million to $13.25 million.

Mitigation Plans

To counter those rises, travel managers will need to get more creative, O’Brien said, and adapt their programs to allow “best price on the day” bookings, rather than hotel rates that rolled over from 2019. And with airlines, travel managers needed to dive into their key origin and destination routes, and key city hotel destinations, and better engage with airlines.

Total trip costs should also be calculated. For example, if a company could work out all elements of a business trip from before the pandemic, including meals, parking or taxis as well as flights and accommodation, it should then look to use that basis when budgeting trips in the future to avoid getting caught out by surges.

And as airlines begin to pass on costs related to sustainable aviation fuel, O’Brien said travel buyers should ensure airlines are transparent about any surcharging, and pinpoint where that money is going. “We should always demand a breakdown of the surcharge, so we can interrogate it. Those surcharges are negotiable,” he said.

Companies would then be more likely to pay those higher fares, as they’d be able to report within their companies — which also have their own sustainability targets to meet.

“Suppliers within the travel ecosystem have shown great resilience during the pandemic and have needed to seek and secure additional funding in most cases,” said Scott Davies, CEO of the Institute of Travel Management. “As the recovery gets under way it is important for buyers and suppliers to understand the commercial pressures and dynamics on each side.”

A Gloomy Corporate Travel Prediction for Hedge Funds and Tech Firms

Skift Take

AMcKinsey partner has warned “digital adopters” may never see the point in returning to business travel as we used to know it.

Not only are consultancy firms, with their avid flyers, curbing travel, one of them now predicts hedge funds and technology firms could “never return” to taking business trips.

The likes of Capgemini and Cognizant plan to drastically reduce the number of business trips in 2022, while Bain wants to reduce the emissions caused by its own travel by about a third over the next five years.

Now, a partner at global consultancy McKinsey believes hedge funds and technology firms will call an end to business trips altogether.

“We think there are some themes on the different types of customers that will come back,” said Vik Krishnan during a webinar this week. “There’s the ‘never returning’ segment. These are digital adopters and cost-focused firms who are able to maintain high levels of effectiveness while working remotely. These are technology firms and hedge funds, for example.”

San Francisco Bay Area-based Krishnan, who advises companies in the aviation, travel and aerospace sectors on operational-performance improvement and digital transformation, also outlined another group: the “wait and see customers.” They won’t be in a competitive industry, where travel is not mission critical, such as governmental organizations.

However, he said the “fear of missing out” kind of businesses, where in-person visits can be critical, would lead the recovery, with smaller firms increasing corporate travel at a faster rate. This segment includes banking, professional services and pharmaceutical companies, and before the pandemic represented 60 percent of corporate travel spend in the U.S.

“Technology companies have the culture and infrastructure to embrace virtual collaboration and may have a higher percentage of ‘never return,’” said Mark O’Brien, managing partner of Avenue 5 Consulting.

“We see industry verticals such as professional services, finance and banking, and insurance companies taking a more cautious return. A major travel industry dynamic is driven by the technology and online retailers, where 50 percent of the top 10 corporate travel and meetings global spend resides.”

Speaking at an online even this week, “Returning to corporate travel: How do we get it right?,” fellow partner Jillian Tellez added that sales meetings were now among the first types of trips to recover.

Her comments echo what’s happening on the ground at the UK’s London City Airport.  “If your trip brings value, which is usually the case because it’s the first wave of travelers, sales development, they can go,” said head of aviation Anne Doyere, discussing the current state of travel policies.

The webinar was held in part to offer advice on the skills all travel stakeholders need to master to adapt to a dynamic future, while the consultancy has also identified how they can emerge stronger through a renewed focus on customer experience, with the findings published in a new Skift Research-McKinsey joint report.

Top of that list for the stakeholders was using new types of data, and Krishnan urged corporate travel planners to use real-time data, including local vaccination rates. Suppliers also needed a “war-room type mindset to having meetings to act on real-time data,” he added, which could help them gain back share earlier than their competitors. “A delay of even a few hours could make a difference to you winning the recovery, or your competitor,” he said.

McKinsey has committed to net zero climate impact by 2030, and will reduce its scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions from business travel by 30 percent per employee.


Former industry executive Mark O’Brien has created a new consulting firm dedicated to business travel, meetings, payments and expenses. Avenue5 Consulting will offer its clients strategic and tactical consulting, category consulting and management services to solve complex and challenging problems.

O’Brien went to LinkedIn to celebrate the news, noting, “Starting a business in a pandemic is difficult, but we’ve done it and we’ve already signed contracts with several clients and financial institutions who need a trusted advisor who helps them solve complex problems and challenging topics. We are very excited about the future and look forward to getting in touch with old and new business colleagues again. “

The coronavirus pandemic has rapidly changed the world of business travel and as companies try to adapt to the new environment, many are looking for advisors to help. In this context, Avenue5 Consulting aims to help its clients gain insights to get better results in terms of business travel.

The company has created three different businesses to provide in-depth information on pre-Covid activity versus post-Covid recovery. The Category Management business unit focuses on the sustainable total true cost of travel (TTCT) and offers a wide range of services ranging from end-to-end framework integration, strategic assessment and procurement to risk management and wellbeing Travelers are enough. The management department offers a range of services including organizational evaluation and design, outsourced management, support for SMB corporate travel agencies, and training and development for the next generation of travel professionals.

A new survey by global strategy consultancy Oliver Wyman found that a third of global consumers are feeling well again as the Covid-19 pandemic appears to be receding. In China, the US and Australia, business travel is now above pre-pandemic levels.

In the UK, however, many companies are still unclear which strategy to pursue. As a result, business travel in the UK remains at lower levels than before the pandemic.

Business travel advisory Avenue5 Consulting launches

Former industry executive Mark O’Brien has launched a new consultancy, dedicated to the corporate travel, meetings, payment, and expense industry. Avenue5 Consulting will offer strategic and tactical, advisory, category consulting and management services for its clients to solve complex, and challenging issues.

Taking to LinkedIn to celebrate the news, O’Brien noted, “Launching a company in a pandemic is tough but we got there, and we have already contracted with several customers and financial institutions who require a trusted advisor to help them solve complex, and challenging issues. We are super excited for the future and look forward to re-connecting with business colleagues old and new.”

The coronavirus pandemic rapidly transformed the business travel world, and as businesses look to adapt to the new environment, many are looking to consultants for support. In this context, Avenue5 Consulting hopes to help clients gain insights to drive better outcomes in terms of business travel.

The company has launched three distinct lines of business to provide informed intelligence on pre-covid activity versus post-covid recovery. Its category management division is focused on the sustainable true total cost of travel (TTCT) and offers a wide suite of services ranging from end-to-end framework integration, strategic assessment, and sourcing, to risk management, and traveller well-being. Its management division provides a range of services including organizational assessment and design, outsourced management, SME business travel agency support, and learning and development for the next generation of travel professionals.

A new survey conducted by global strategy consulting firm Oliver Wyman has found that a third of global consumers feel comfortable to travel again, as the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be receding. Business travel is now exceeding pre-pandemic levels in China, the US and Australia to that end.

In the UK, however, many businesses are still unclear of what strategy to take moving forward. As a result, business travel in Britain remains at a lower level than before the pandemic.