My business trips now include testing, empty airports, and lonely takeout dinners — here's a look at how work travel has changed

  • Alan Kearl is a beauty industry executive experienced in operations, finance, and strategy.
  • After losing his job during the pandemic, he was sheltering in place in Maine.
  • So he had mixed emotions when he was offered a consulting gig that would require travel.
  • Overall, he's felt safe traveling, but has noticed a lot of big changes in airports and hotels.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As a C-level executive in the beauty industry, having worked for companies like Estée Lauder and tarte, I normally travel over 100,000 miles and spend more than 35 nights in hotels annually. 

But, since the start of the pandemic, I lost my job and have been sheltering in place. While I craved a return to my normal routine, I wasn't keen to dramatically increase my exposure to COVID-19. So it was with mixed emotions that I accepted a consulting gig that would require air travel, rental cars, hotel stays, and in-person meetings with people not in my "bubble." And I certainly wasn't prepared for what I would find. 

The changes to normal business travel are numerous, with new check-in policies, near-empty terminals and hotels, let alone meeting business contacts from behind a mask — it's all different. These changes feel similar to those implemented after 9/11. 

I noticed this immediately as I booked my first travel in five and half months, a trip from Portland, Maine to Minneapolis. Although Portland is a small market, it normally has decent flight choices — but not  anymore. Normally there are several fifty-minute direct flights daily to either LGA or JFK, but now I can only get to New York by connecting through another city. On a recent trip to Los Angeles I chose to drive an extra two hours to Boston in order to avoid an extra night's stay in Los Angeles because of the limited options for returning to Portland. 

At check-in I had to confirm that I hadn't been diagnosed with, or been knowingly exposed to, COVID-19 in the previous 14 days or have any symptoms, and that I would agree to wear a mask at all times while in-flight.

Happily, I chose one of the few airlines (Delta) that doesn't book middle-seat passengers and was lucky enough to have been the only person in my row for several of the eleven flight segments I have flown.

In addition to the deep cleaning routines the airlines have adopted, I received a sanitary wipe upon boarding and most travelers wipe their seating area.

In-flight service? Limited to only a pre-set snack. Canned beer is available, but no canned soft drinks are available. Plan on bringing your own meal.

One of the most striking impacts of COVID-19 are the near-empty airports.

I read that air travel is down about 70%, but until I actually experienced it, this was just an abstract thought. Now, having been in BOS, LAX, DTW and MSP — all top 20 airports — at normally busy travel times, the reality is disorienting.

This was the only restaurant open in an otherwise empty food court in LAX.

The pandemic has touched us all in big and small ways.

I had a little extra time at MSP and was wearing a very scuffed pair of shoes. To my surprise, I found an open shoe shine stand. Clarence, the attendant, let me know that his employer had closed her other two stands in the airport and his was the only one open. But if business didn't pick up during the fall, it too would close and he'd be out of work.

He'd just purchased his first car in February and wasn't sure he could manage the payments. I decided to not only have my shoes shined, but my briefcase as well.

Similarly, hotels that cater to Monday-Friday business travelers feel as empty as if it were a Saturday.

After two trips and three nights in a normally thriving Sheraton in Minneapolis, I never saw anyone in the large lounge area, and, of course, signage everywhere alerts guests to the need to take precautions. The morning breakfast buffet was eliminated and the drinking fountains and ice dispensers were turned off.

The business traveler dinner ritual has completely changed.

Out is the nicer, intimate, dinners and in is the more casual outdoor option. Eating fast casual carryout, alone, is also becoming the norm. Forget much of a bar scene.

One of my pre-trip new rituals now includes scheduling an appointment at the CVS Minute Clinic for a COVID-19 test.

After my test, when I actually arrive at my house, I quarantine for the roughly 48-72 hours it takes to receive results. Yes, I know there many variables regarding the time it takes for COVID-19 to incubate and the efficacy of various tests, so this step in my new COVID-19 travel routine is not 100% perfect, but it offers me and my family a practical way to find balance between the added health risk of travel and "living life" by providing for my family.

The "new travel normal" isn't just about changes in procedures; there are definitely some new risks (beyond the obvious COVID-19 risk).

My first trip was to evaluate a prospective acquisition for a private equity firm, and I was to visit a manufacturing facility in Minneapolis and meet with the management team. The business was housed in the same structure — but separated by an internal wall — as its primary supplier. When I landed, I learned that an employee at the next door supplier had tested positive for COVID-19 and that both businesses had closed for a deep cleaning. 

After some evaluation of options, we settled on holding the discussion portion of our agenda via a Zoom call from our separate, respective hotel rooms. Two weeks later, once they were sure it would be safe for me to be on site, I returned for the planned in-person tour.

Overall, I have felt safe during my travels. Yes there are clearly pitfalls, but with some precaution and a little extra planning, essential travel is possible.

Alan Kearl is a beauty industry executive experienced in operations, finance, and strategy and when he isn't consulting, writing, and traveling (a little) he enjoys his mid-coast Maine views. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn

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