When I wrote about Plank’s Climate Commitment last summer, little did I realize at the time how easy it would be to meet our goals, thanks to the current global health pandemic. With borders closed and all non-essential travel off our radar, all of our in-person meetings would need to be online.

At the time, I proudly shared my original post with my friend, coach, and confidant Joe Rinaldi. Rather than get the pat on the back that I hoped for, Joe offered a different perspective. While he acknowledged that doing something to help the environment was commendable and a responsible thing to do as a company, he did have some tough questions for me. He was more curious about the different ways that our climate commitment would hurt business development, our client relationships, and our team. He correctly challenged me about a commitment to the environment and the health of Plank.

Pandemic Networking

In March 2020, I was concerned if we could continue to keep up the connections that I was routinely making at meetings, conferences, and events. Like a lot of people, I was concerned that only networking online would not be enough. Now, with one successful year of experience making virtual connections, I have a very different opinion. I feel as if we will be able to handle a large part of our business relationships online, with limited but focused on in-person, high-value meetings and events. 

On the other hand, I didn’t want to only rely on feelings and impressions and make assumptions about such a critical aspect of our company. Therefore, I decided to analyze the real return on investment of business travel and come up with a post-pandemic plan that plays to our strengths.

My Questions

While I could do a simple review of 2020 vs. 2019 and look at our business travel success, I didn’t feel like I would get a proper answer. Given that travel went from a ton to none — and forced on everyone — I didn’t feel like the data was easily comparable. Also, what was acceptable this year might be less so in years to come. So, I decided to focus on some other questions.

  • How often did in-person presentations lead to work?
  • How effective were remote presentations and meetings?
  • Were in-person meetings with existing clients and partners useful?
  • How effective were ongoing regular scheduled trips and conferences?
  • How successful were in-person and virtual meetings and events?

It was interesting to see some of my assumptions and expectations proved wrong and made it even clearer that we could reduce environmental impact and be a more effective organization.

In-person pitches and presentations don’t work for us

There have been quite a few times we have been asked or decided that we should meet a prospective client face to face before a project is signed off. What I never stopped to ask ourselves was: is it worth the financial and time investment? Did we get a lot of new work because we travelled to meetings with prospective clients?

The answer to this question is a resounding no. All of the effort, travel and expenses lead to no direct value to us. This isn’t to say that this is a universal truth for everyone — I know some smooth-talking, charismatic leaders who I’m sure are successful at in-person pitches — but it isn’t valuable for us right now. We will make it an official policy that we do not travel for pitches.

Virtual meetings and presentations work for us

While our success rate with virtual meetings and presentations has been historically low, we have found our ratio ticking up recently, as we’ve leaned into doing a better job presenting ourselves on video. In the past year, we’ve won 50% of our video presentations which is better than the 0% of in-person meetings. So, this is where we will be investing our energy from now on. 

One of the most important relationships we ever developed was done entirely over the phone with no in-person contact. I was surprised that things happened that way, but it is proof that we didn’t need to be in a room with someone to build an empathetic relationship. It shook our assumptions of what the standard rules are for getting to know our clients.

Meeting our existing clients is the key to our success

Clients or Plank advocates — in other words, those who recommend us to other people — are the people that we need to visit in person. These are the people worth getting on a plane or train to visit as they account for three-quarters of all the work we accomplish each year. Sure, we want to meet new people to grow our community, but our existing partners are probably the best people to influence and suggest who else we should collaborate with.

We will be prioritizing visits and meetings with the people who are a part of our community.

Less frequent but regular meetings are important

Over the last few years, I have gotten in the habit of keeping out a monthly and quarterly routine of travel to some specific cities. It’s been nice to have a travel routine, but the amount of travel I had to do for short trips was hectic. It also meant that I was always behind on booking my schedule for my next trip since they were so frequent.

My goal from now on is to do fewer but longer trips that are better planned and more strategic. My goal is to make sure that I squeeze every bit of value out of my time away.

Some conferences and events were successful, others were not

From 2015-2019, I was attending on average one in-person conference every two months. In 2020 and 2021, in-person events dwindled to nothing, so we chose to stick to a similar virtual conference schedule.

Looking back, our success has been mixed. While we always learnt something and had a good experience, only half of the events have offered great opportunities to make new contacts and meet new people. We need to either remove some of the less successful ones from our schedule and replace them with others or look at our overall strategy and be more proactive to make more out of each event.

The Future of Business Travel at Plank

While some companies and organizations are hoping for and expecting business travel and networking to go right back to pre-pandemic habits, they won’t for us. I recognize that there will be important points where we meet our clients and partners, attend an event, or have a meeting over a coffee. But we will always consider how there were a lot of times where the return on investment was negligible.

The critical lesson learnt is that the trip’s goals have to be clear, the plans solid, and a strategy in place. We want to be ready to make the most out of the trip, otherwise, it’s best to hop on Zoom.