Kiwis are finally able to head to Australia and back without isolating but are forecast to resume business travel at barely half the rate.

The pandemic meant adapt or die for businesses, says Kiwibank chief economist Jarrod Kerr.

“It was either bend or break. And we saw a lot of businesses move online very quickly.”

Face-to-face visits to trading partners were replaced with fake Zoom backgrounds and the repeated verbal refrains of remote meetings: “Can you hear me?” and “You’re on mute!”

“Technology has done a lot,” Kerr says. “Prior to the pandemic, not many people were able to use Zoom or Teams, but a lot of businesses got on board with the technology very quickly.”

Now, with vaccinated New Zealanders able to travel in and out of the country without a stay in MIQ or even self-isolation, businesses involved in international trade can return to the old way of doing things.

But should they? Before business leaders start collecting their frequent flyer miles afresh, they will need to find the right balance between the old way and the new way.

“If you talk to any exporter, you’ll hear that it’s been tough without being able to have that personal engagement.”
– Kirk Hope, Business NZ

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope thinks there may some lag-time before people are willing to travel for business as they did before. “I think it’ll take a while to get back to previous levels,” he says. “And it may never, as people start to balance the two ways they can do business.”

Australia, in particular, is a significant trading partner for New Zealand, with 19 percent of our service exports and 25.5 percent of our service imports being conducted across the ditch.

Trade in goods is also high – meaning a lot of members of New Zealand’s business community will be keen to head over the Tasman and check back in with their trading partners.

Hope says New Zealand’s approach to trade puts a premium on relationship-building, partly because of the country’s remote location at the bottom of the world.

But relationship-building can be tough over Zoom – it’s one of the often unquantifiable things lost when face-to-face is replaced with a computer screen. “We’ve always been relational,” Hope says. “Primarily, there’s been a model of going into foreign markets.”

Perhaps part of it is the commitment anybody is making when they jump on a plane from New Zealand. A trip to the UK calls for more than just a pop-in to a factory – it has historically been a chance for wider networking. “If you’re in a specific market, you’ll often have a lot of collateral networks.”

Relationship-building can mean stronger trade relationships and flowing imports and exports, and without the face-to-face, this hasn’t been an easy endeavour. “If you talk to any exporter, you’ll hear that it’s been tough without being able to have that personal engagement.”

That’s why he doesn’t see face-to-face meetings going the way of the moa. “You’d never replace it.”

Kerr expects there will be plenty of initial hesitation from the business community because of the uncertainty of this stage of the pandemic. “People may be hesitant for the next six months or so,” he says. “Especially right here and right now with the Omicron outbreak in the community.”

He foresees a return to face-to-face interactions across international borders eventually – just perhaps at a reduced frequency. “There’s a lot of ways we can get things done virtually,” he says. “So instead of travelling four times a year, maybe it will be once or twice.”

On top of being a cost-saving manoeuvre for businesses, it means keeping the benefits of digital technology such as being able to have international meetings with less cost and time taken.

Kerr has noticed this in his own work – while he would go to events and present face-to-face about 15 times a year before the pandemic, now he finds himself doing less in-person but even more through Zoom.

But he says going to an event in person has more value for him. “As an economist, I get a lot more from going to events and presenting face-to-face,” he says. 

Kerr sees the dilemma of whether to travel or not as similar to the question of workers returning to offices around the country.

Working from home can be a double-edged sword that depends on a range of factors such as what your home is like and your own personality and work-style.

Business trips can rack up the cost, and an internet connection and a Skype account are peanuts in comparison.

Yet still there are the ineffable boons of meeting in person. “I still think we yearn for face-to-face,” Kerr says. “The networking is one part of it.”

As with many challenges presented by the pandemic, flexibility remains the key.

“The theme of good businesses are those than can adapt,” he says. “Going forward, we may be in a new world but that will still be true.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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