Businesses of all shapes and sizes have always been affected by advances in technology. However, the last twenty years has seen the way that firms do business altered irrecoverably as mobile phones and computers have made communication easier and the world seem like a smaller place than ever before. A small business owner that now says they want to sell direct to India is no longer viewed as a fantasist. Developments in technology may have altered how companies work but, after the initial excitement at new tools, some companies revert back to earlier practice and the majority often combine a hybrid model of old and new. Data is suggesting that for firms in the UK, this is the case when it comes to communication.


In fact, figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that business trips abroad by UK residents in 2012 actually increased by 4% compared to the previous year. The figures also revealed that the corporate travel market accounted for 12.4% of all overseas trips by UK residents - up from 11.95% a year ago. Other data released backs up the ONS figures, with British Airways owner IAG, EasyJet and RyanAir all seeing passenger numbers increase in 2012. 



With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the increase in technology wouldn't spell the end for business travel, as some commentators predicted. For while technology such as email, Skype and video conferencing has made it easier for conversations across the world to take place, airline technology has not stood still either. It is easier than ever before to book a flight online and increasing numbers of companies are turning to paperless tickets, so their customers don't have to queue to check in but can simply stroll straight to the departure area.


New technology hasn't stood idle on the planes either. Safety is a strange issue in some ways; when something is safe we don't even think about it, but if we consider something to be unsafe then it becomes the number one priority in our decision making. Air safety is an issue that most passengers take for granted, and figures released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) confirm that this assumption is correct. Put simply, air travel is safer than it has ever been before. The IATA data shows that an average passenger travelling on Western-built jetliners would have to take over five million flights before being involved in an accident. The accident rate for the airline industry as a whole is so low that someone taking a flight a day could theoretically expect 14,000 years of trouble-free flying.


Comfort and productivity

One of the main advantages of flying is that the journey time isn't ‘wasted' and after the flight has taken off everybody is free to turn on their smartphones, laptops or tablets. This time - away from the hustle and bustle of the office and ringing telephones - can be invaluable for the time-poor business person.


Marc Davies is a graphic designer for an SME based in London. The company had done some work for a Chinese firm, and when they were approached about biding for a large contract they decided to go out there and meet them in person. Marc and two colleagues made the journey over to China and he made full use of the journey time. "The flight time to China from the UK is around ten hours," says Marc. "I have an iPad so I used some of that time to catch-up on emails and to work on some projects that needed my attention. It was great to tick-off some work from my to-do list."


Of course, if the idea of doing yet more work on the journey sends you into cold sweats then there's always the option of grabbing forty winks and ensuring you're recharged for when you land. Many airlines have made a conscious effort recently to improve their levels of comfort. For example, Delta Airlines offers a premium economy section which includes four additional inches of leg room, seats that recline 50% more than standard economy class seats and complimentary spirits.


Personal touch

For many companies actually meeting clients and potential clients face-to-face is vital and displays an air of seriousness and commitment that chatting on Skype simply doesn't convey, as well as giving the opportunity for people to connect on a personal level. In the real world, business deals aren't done solely on spreadsheets and by evaluating costs - how well two people get on also plays a role.


That's why Marc Davies' company made the decision to travel out to China. "Obviously, it's a really long way to go, but it was worthwhile," confirms Marc. "We presented to them in person and were able to have the time we needed to get our ideas across. They also took us on tours of their factories and we got a much better idea about their business, about areas that we didn't know about before. I think that dealing with them will be easier in future because there is now a personal connection, we have all been out socialising and know a little bit about each other."


Perhaps that is why companies across the world, from behemoth corporations down to one-man-bands continue to travel to meet clients and prospective clients; because you simply can't put a price on how helpful and influential a personal connection can be in business.


David Chaple, event director of the Business Travel Show, gives his views on business travel


Businesses are still travelling for two reasons: stopping all travelling within a company is a knee jerk reaction to cut costs that may well be a successful cost-saving strategy, but in the short-term only. If businesses are to grow, then they must continue to travel and do business with current and new partners. If they don't, their competitors will. Secondly, when it comes to doing business, especially with new or potential partners, nothing beats face-to-face communication: the shake of a hand and eye-to-eye contact are essential for building and maintaining trust in a business relationship.


To save money firms should consider introducing a company-wide travel policy to control spending and reporting and sign up for programmes that reward companies and travellers and use kickbacks, such as free upgrades, to get more for your money. If the majority of your business travel is domestic, use rail and hotel booking agents. If you buy flights, use a local business travel agent.


I think high-speed rail will take over from domestic flights that currently take under an hour in the future. As planes become more technologically advanced and environmentally friendly, the price of flights will drop and there will be low-cost flights to more destinations. The number of long-haul flights to emerging and fast growing economies such as the BRIC and Central American territories will increase.