Grounded by Covid, Road Warriors Ponder Life Without Travel


For almost 17 years, Atlanta health-care technology sales executive Eric Goldmann has spent nearly every week on the road working.

Like many Americans, the 42-year-old took his last flight in mid-March. He’s still adjusting to life on the ground. In the era of virtual meetings, more clients cancel on him with little notice, something that rarely happened when he traveled to see them. On Zoom, he finds it harder to sniff out what he calls the “anti-sponsors” who could derail a deal.

Mr. Goldmann pines for the pleasures of business travel. After flying for so long, he could almost recite the schedules of his favorite airport club lounge bartenders and gate agents. He had honed preferred running locations on the road (Tampa’s waterfront) and found favorite restaurants (Sandro’s, an Italian spot in New York).

Even the delays and indignities of travel take on a rosier hue in the pandemic. Mr. Goldmann is wistful for the days when he would watch passengers fume at gate agents and storm through airports, plowing over passersby in a mad rush to reach a gate.

“I miss everything associated with travel,” he says.

Eric Goldmann sits in a Delta Air Lines A350 simulator in 2017, a thank-you gift for sharing his perspective at an event for newly hired pilots.



Photo:

Eric Goldmann

It’s a time of reflection for hardened road warriors. As the pandemic drags, some of them are questioning whether they will ever fully return to their old lives.

“I’m wondering, did I waste a lot of my time for the last 30 years running around the world on jets and everything going to Abu Dhabi and Singapore for a couple of meetings?” says David Rubenstein, co-executive chairman of private-equity giant

Carlyle Group

in Washington, D.C.

Many miss the adventure and personal connections of travel, not to mention the uninterrupted time to read, write and think. But a number of business travelers also say they’re happier, healthier and more connected to family with wings clipped. Some are getting their best sleep in years anchored in one time zone.

Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of the flavored-water brand Hint, traveled so often in building her San Francisco-based company that she rented a New York apartment. Since the pandemic, she has come to cherish the expanded time with her family: a walk with the family’s Labrador retrievers or an outdoor movie night with her children.

Ms. Goldin has returned to limited business travel to promote her new book, “Undaunted.” But that travel looks far different. Instead of speaking to crowds of conference-goers, as she did before, she recently flew to Los Angeles to stand in a nearly empty ballroom of a downtown JW Marriott, where she gave a speech while looking on at TV monitors of audience members.

In years of traveling for work, Ms. Goldin says she appreciates cities she never would have otherwise seen. She visited Bentonville, Ark., home of retail giant

Walmart,

with low expectations. But Ms. Goldin found she enjoyed the city’s small town square and its Crystal Bridges museum. She advised friends to partake in bourbon tours in Kentucky after a business trip to Louisville. “I went on the whiskey trail, and I don’t even particularly enjoy whiskey,” she says.

While traveling for work, Ms. Goldin often looked for ways to see destinations in between meetings. During a 2019 work trip to Dublin, she took a day trip to see more of Ireland.



Photo:

Kara Goldin

Many companies have extended travel restrictions for months. Other executives have made personal decisions to travel only by car for now to protect their families.

Jay Stevens, chief growth officer at Privia Health and a longtime health-care technology sales executive, recently drove seven hours from his Virginia home to attend meetings in Nashville, Tenn. Before the Covid crisis, Mr. Stevens averaged about 150 nights a year in hotel rooms. “It’s all I knew,” he said. (Upon receiving an award denoting his first million miles flown with one airline, he told his wife, “Honey, look at how awesome this is,” he recalls. “She said, ‘This is not good. This just proves that you’re never home.’ ”)

Jay Stevens, chief growth officer at Privia Health, checking in to a hotel recently in Nashville, Tenn., one of his first business trips in the Covid-19 era.



Photo:

Jay Stevens

While he may have once thought nothing of spending $1,000 to fly to Dallas the next day for a one-hour meeting, Mr. Stevens says he will now consider video over brief visits. “We can create an environment where there is a work-life balance, where I can enjoy having dinner with my family more than one night a week.”

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Still, road warriors say it isn’t easy to entirely give up old habits. While many carriers have extended elite frequent-flier status, Clinton Lazzari, an operating partner at the venture-capital firm Playground Global who is based in Medford, Ore., worries about his hard-earned status expiring. Mr. Lazzari, who regularly travels to Thailand, Hong Kong, Israel and elsewhere for work, says those trips helped him keep a sense of urgency, he said, and allowed for moments of focus. “It was a complete disconnect,” he says. “I don’t have a good replication of that.”

Others say they miss the break from monotony that work trips provided. Carol Watson, chief inclusion officer at BCW, a communications agency, began her job in January. She was beginning a tour of the company’s offices when the pandemic halted travel. Over her career, she has regularly voyaged around the world.

Carol Watson, right, during a 2019 work trip to Atlanta. She shared a meal with Wendy McSweeney, left.



Photo:

Charlene McNeil, Truist Financial Corporation

“Now I work from my bedroom everyday,” she says. At first she struggled with the sameness of her New York home. Now she says that even if she longs for chances to meet people in-person, she’s more productive, and finds that colleagues world-wide are even more eager to meet, knowing everyone can join virtually. “The walls have definitely come down and it’s much easier to feel much more connected.”

But even the best virtual technology can make it tough to glean the type of information that might occur more naturally in person. Amy Novogratz co-founded Aqua-Spark, which invests in sustainable fish-farming operations and other aquaculture efforts around the globe. She says she often learned some of her most valuable information by spending time on the ground with entrepreneurs in places like Indonesia and Madagascar.

Ms. Novogratz, who divides her time between New York and the Netherlands, expects she will resume travel when she is able: “I don’t want to get to a travel-free society, and I don’t think we’re going to get to a travel-free workplace.”

Amy Novogratz and Mike Velings, co-founders of Aqua-Spark, a fund investing in sustainable aquaculture, on a trip to a farm in Norway in 2018.



Photo:

Tory Williams

Meanwhile, some road warriors are making alternative plans. In Atlanta, Mr. Goldmann recently did something radical: Knowing he will likely remain grounded, he decided to replace his beat-up desk of 15 years in his makeshift home office, splurging for a new chair, a new bookshelf and other furniture. He doesn’t expect to hit the road for work until at least the second quarter of 2021.

“And that is really, really sad,” he says.

Write to Chip Cutter at chip.cutter@wsj.com

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