This Research Bulletin has been published in D. Hislop (ed) (2008) Mobility and Technology in the Workplace, London, Routledge, pp. 87-102.
Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.
International business travel is now a familiar practice for many executives across a range of industries. Evidence of this can be seen in the proliferation of hotel chains claiming to specialise in meeting the business traveller's every need (e.g. Marriott Courtyard), websites and magazines providing up to the minute information about the latest services available to business travellers (e.g. Businesstraveller.com and Business Traveller Magazine), and business class only airlines (e.g. Silver Jet) offering the ultimate mobile office without the inconveniences and distractions associated with normal scheduled operators. Whilst accepting that it is often hard to disentangle travel that is solely orientated for business purposes and that which also serves tourist or social (familial) functions (Lassen, 2006), it seems undeniable that the globalization of both service and manufacturing industries has led to increasing obligations of proximity and the need for face-to-face contact (Jones, 2007), what Urry (2003) calls ‘meetingness'. With this in mind, it is perhaps surprising how little attention business travel has received from academics. One indicator of this research void is the number of business travel articles identified by the ISI Web Of Knowledge. Here, as of June 2007, we find 427 articles, a somewhat lowly figure when compared with studies of other forms of mobility such as tourism (7,638 articles) and pilgrimage (1,876 articles).
But why is researching business travel important? There are, we argue, a number of reasons. First, and most pragmatically, the sheer proliferation of business travel journeys. As more and more firms globalise and technological advances seemingly fail to replace the benefits of face-to-face contact, workforces are becoming ever more mobile. The latest Barclaycard Business Travel Survey (2006) suggest that between 1996 and 2006 the number of business travel miles of leading executives increased by 32 percent to 608.5 miles a month on average, something that is predicted to increase by a further 17 percent by 2015. This has impacts on the way technologies are used to support this hyper-mobile workforce (Forlano; Yoo; Lowry and Moskos, in this volume), social implications as work-life balances potentially get ever more disturbed (Middleton, in this volume), environmental impacts as a significant proportion of business travel is international and involves air travel, and simplications for future urban planning regimes as the demand for airports, airport hotels and business traveller infrastructures puts pressure on existing facilities and leads to calls for new runways and airport developments. Second, theoretically, the study of business travel as a practice can inform wider debates associated with the mobilities paradigm (Cresswell, 2001; Sheller and Urry, 2006), global sociologies and microglobalization (Knorr-Cetina, 2006; Urry, 2000) and relational economic spaces and geographies (Amin, 2002; Yeung, 2005). Here we need to move beyond studies of the functionality of business travel in the sense of ‘getting the job done' and consider the new relational geometries, ‘network capital' (Larsen et al. 2006) and topologies of business space that are opened up by business travel as a synergistic role for virtual and embodied interactions develops in the current period. These have important geographical dimensions that reinforce forms of uneven development and power relations in the global economy, issue we consider in this chapter.
With this in mind, the rest of the chapter focuses exclusively upon the international dimensions of business travel and proceeds as follows. Section one briefly illustrates contemporary patterns of business travel through an analysis of official data from the United Kingdom's Travel Trends (Office for National Statistics, 2007) and unofficial data, sourced from the European airline industry (Witlox et al, 2007). Sections two and three examine the way this proliferation in business travel supports the operation of globalizing professional service firms. Drawing on examples of how lawyers use business travel we show the topologies of social space opened up by occasional face-to-face encounter and how these are used to sustain working relationships and facilitate transnational business through virtual, telephone, internet and video-conference mediated working. This raises a number of important questions about the way geographies of business travel reproduce the global space economy, something that we address in the concluding section of the chapter.
Overview: Mapping the Business Travel Boom
Recording the flows and magnitude of international business travel in the world economy is not an exact science. Data are generated from either national governments or private enterprise for commercial purposes (e.g. airlines and hotel chains to predict passenger yields and bed occupancy respectively).
Official Business Travel Trends
In the United Kingdom (U.K.) for example, the Office for National Statistics (O.N.S.) collects data on overseas residents' visits to the U.K. and U.K. residents' visits abroad in the annual statistical digest, Travel Trends . Data reported in Travel Trends are collected from the International Passenger Survey (I.P.S.). The I.P.S. is a continuous face-to-face interview survey of a sample of passengers entering and leaving the U.K. by sea, air and tunnel routes, which specifically reports the purpose of visits (classified as: holiday; business; visiting friends or relatives; and, miscellaneous) (O.N.S., 2005). In the following, we present the major travel trends in business visits to and from the U.K. as recorded in the most recent Travel Trends (O.N.S., 2005):
Unofficial Business Travel Trends
One very rich seam of unofficial data on international business travel can be procured from the airline industry. Whilst such airline data is highly commercially sensitive and confidential when disaggregated into different classes of travel (first, business, premium and economy for example), two world experts on airline travel flows, Frank Witlox and Ben Derudder, have been setting the international agendas in mapping passenger travel data for the airline industry (e.g. Derudder, Devriendt and Wiltox, 2007; Derudder, Wiltox and Taylor, 2007). In one of their most recent papers, Witlox and Derudder have used data published by the Association of European Airlines (A.E.A.) for the period January 2002 to December 2005 to chart the geography of business class travel in Europe by converting airport-to-airport-by-carrier data into a city-by-city database by aggregating for business class the number of passengers for all airports of a given city (i.e. includes flights within Europe, and between Europe and other world regions) (Witlox et. al., 2007). Table 5 shows two very important rankings in Europe 's world city geography of airline business class travel. First, it illustrates the most absolute important cities by passenger volume in business class travel, with London , Frankfurt and Paris atop this hierarchy. Second, and very importantly, it depicts the relative proportion of business class travel within a city's overall passenger volumes, which shows that city's like Geneva and Frankfurt are highly influential business centres in Europe .
Given the dearth of both official and unofficial data on business travel in Europe and beyond, a particularly fertile approach to unpacking the processes and patterns of such travel and working practices has been the implementation of detailed case study research, often involving qualitative based face-to-face interviewing. In the following section we use the example of business travel in professional services to illustrate why such working processes are still vital working practices in an era of highly-complex ICT as the speed of globalization continues to shrink the business world in an ever increasing web of inter-connections.
Case Study - Business Travel and Professional Service Firms: Stretched Social Relations and Topologies of Economic Space
The role of business travel in cross-border business activities has, in many ways, been documented as part of studies of related phenomena. Sklair's seminal work on the transnational capitalist class (2001) highlighted how an ever-moving elite cadre of managers that:
For Sassen (2006), it is professional service firms (table 6) in particular that underlay contemporary economic globalisation. Their activities, mediated in and through world cities, have created global office networks capable of meeting the accounting, advertising, financial and legal needs of other globalizing firms. Significantly, the activities of these firms are, according to Sassen and others (e.g. Beaverstock, 2004; Beaverstock et al. 1999; Faulconbridge, 2006, in press) sustained by a myriad of flows of information, instructions, ideas, plans and importantly here people. It is the peculiarities of professional services themselves and the delivery of integrated global professional services that creates this situation. In particular, it is possible to identify two unique characteristics of the work of these firms that render business travel especially important. First, they deliver knowledge-rich, tailored advice to clients (Alvesson, 2001; Lowendhal, 2005). This often requires face-to-face contact with advisors and clients being present in the same room. Second, deals/projects often stretch across borders and bring together professionals (both on client and service-firm sides) from multiple countries. Coordinating and synchronising this process, as well as developing the trust and mutual respect needed to allow collaboration, often requires intermittent periods of co-presence. The comments of the UK Chairman and Senior Partner of KPMG the accounting firm exemplify these points. He noted how the firm's attempts to reduce their carbon footprint had stalled because “half of our carbon footprint I now accounted for by air travel and we can't quite see how we can deliver services to our international clients without it” (FT, 2007).
Jones (2007) develops this idea well in his explanation of the role of face-to-face contact in globalizing law firms. Here it is suggested that face-to-face contact (facilitated by business travel) is necessary for four reasons:
Here, however, we aim to push this debate in a different direction. Rather than focussing on business travel as a functional tool, a means to an end (e.g. meeting up to sign a deal), we explore the practice's social significance and the way studying business travel's role in these firms might have implications for our understanding of the linkages between fundamental sociological ideas of social proximity, face-to-face contact and localness. In particular we build on the arguments of both Urry (2000) and Knorr-Cetina (2006) to examine the way business travel is producing stretched social formations in professional service firms that pull particular places and spaces together into topological assemblages formed through mobility and occasional moments of proximity. Such co-presence acts as a socially aligning and synchronising force that, as Sheller and Urry (2006) argue, produces complex and fluid social topologies that we know little about at present, something that we can perhaps begin to resolve through a detailed study of business travel. Of course, as Callon and Law (2004) point out, we should not only study mobility but also the various other technologies (the telephone, internet, blackberry) that are folded into the construction of this new form of proximity. Here the idea of an encounter moves further beyond the face-to-face and recognises the multiple ways in which ‘being there' can exist. In the case of business travel this means the synergism of occasional meetings with virtual communications should be the focus of our study so as to develop an understanding how formal, social, event- and place-based obligations of meetingness exist alongside occasions when virtual co-presence is adequate (Urry, 2003).
Geographies of Business Travel
From a geographers perspective this means recognising the implications of contemporary forms of mobility for studies of the so-called relational economy (Boggs and Rantisi, 2003; Yeung, 2005). Here attempts to analyse the geographically distributed, relational nature of economic activities have begun to explore the ways what Hess (2004, 180) calls network embeddedness (“the connections between heterogeneous actors, regardless of their location, rather than restricted to only one geographical scale”) and Amin (2002, 389) refers to as relational space/proximity (“space, place and time… as: co-constituted, folded together, produced through practices, situated, multiple, and mobile”). Significantly, as Sheppard (2002) argues, this can reproduce the current unevenness and power relations within the global economy as the topological social spaces produced, and the power relations manufactured between actors in these spaces, reinforces current spatial patterns. Below we begin to consider this issue and look specifically at the role of business travel as a creator of new topologies of social, economic space in legal professional service firms where both embodied and virtual co-presence ties the firm together. We do this by drawing on insights gained from a series of 29 semi-structured interviews completed and analysed. Interviews were held with managing partners, partners and associates working for globalizing law firms all of which had multiple overseas office, the largest having 34 offices. Interviews were completed in London and New York between September 2003 and July 2004.
Unpacking Business Travel in Professional Service Firms
In some ways it is impossible to divorce the role of business travel for ‘getting things' done (Jones, 2007). For the most part, the travel of the lawyers interviewed was restricted to the necessities of a transaction. To use the language of Urry (2003), this would normally be for legal, economic and object obligations (the signing of contracts) but also social obligations (meeting the clients at the start and at critical moments in a transaction). It was clear at the time of completing the interviews that the financial costs of overseas travel (flights, accommodation etc) and the add-on cost of the unproductive periods associated with business travel rendered all but the most important journeys economically unviable. Today it is likely that environmental concerns, as highlighted by the Chairman and Senior partner of KPMG, act as an additional consideration. Nevertheless, despite these costs, lawyers were unanimous in supporting business travel as an essential practice. This was not just because of its relationship with ‘getting the job done' but also because of the ‘network capital' (Larsen et al. 2006) and relational proximity (Amin, 2002; Faulconbridge, 2006) it produces as new social spaces are opened up between colleagues in different offices. Without business travel these spaces fail to emerge and the organisation can become fragmented and meaningless as a global service provider. As one lawyer put it:
As the quotation suggests, developing these spaces requires the manufacturing of opportunities to develop relationships and connections between individuals, something that can mean staying-on an extra day after the completion of a deal or ensuring social time (evening meals, a round of golf) is incorporated into schedules. Indeed, such ‘getting to know you' time is valued so much by lawyers that it can, on occasions, be used as the sole justification for travel. As one partner commented:
Such trips occurred most commonly in the form of annual all-partner conferences or practice group meetings. Whilst having a business rationale, all agreed that the main value was the networking facilitated as the meetings acted as a mechanism to ‘gel' the network together and move away from seeing overseas offices as pins in a map and towards a vision of them as part of a share organisational social space. The following quote illustrates the importance of this aspect of business travel:
As this suggests, obligations of meetingness can actually transform organizational spaces. Just as Knorr-Cetina (2006) describes how time and the market along with well-recognised screen codes help align spatially dispersed financial traders, lawyers described how occasional meetings facilitated by business travel begun to align colleagues and produce powerful relationships. The resultant fluid social topology brings into question ideas such as near and far, proximate and distant as occasional embodied encounters open up new connections across space that drag colleagues together into alignment, topological proximity and shared socio-economic milieus. Significantly, mirroring the arguments of Callon and Law (2004), interviews revealed that technology plays a supporting role in this process of folding distanciated offices together. Many of the relationships consummated through physical co-presence had been established virtually, usually by email or telephone (see Forlano and Yoo, this volume). This developed the initial foundations of a relationship (awareness of one-another's expertise and experience) that were then built upon when face-to-face encounters occurred. After the meeting and construction of the main components of a successful relationship (mutual understanding and trust in particular, as detailed by Goffman  in his study of the value of embodied encounters) virtual co-presence through regular email dialogue, telephone calls normally at intervals of once a week (see Licoppe, 2004 for the significance of this), and occasionally video-conference maintained and sustained the relationship.
The importance of this blending of occasional face-to-face and ongoing virtual encounter and co-presence was clear to all of the lawyers interviewed. Together the two ensured it was possible to have rich and meaningful exchanges on a regular basis, not just when it was possible to get together in the same room. This is vital to globalizing firms because, as one lawyer put it:
These conversations that draw on the social spaces constructed by business travel and are used for multiple purposes. Often they are used to deal with all but the final stages of a transaction and reach agreement about how to structure the legal documents being put together for a client. They may even be used for fire-fighting when a crisis arises but time or other business commitments prevent travel for a face-to-face meeting. At the opposite end of the spectrum they are also used as a way of innovating and managing knowledge in the firm (Faulconbridge, in press). Because of the tacit, embodied nature of the knowledge used to produce bespoke solutions to clients' problems, the best way to efficiently and effectively provide advice is by seeking support, suggestions and help from colleagues with experience of the type of problems encountered in a transaction. Often these individuals will be both metrically close (in the same office) and distant (in overseas offices). Here the topological effects of the social space constructed by occasion business travel become essential. As one lawyer put it:
But Geography Matters in Business Travel!
It became clear that the geography of business travel was a proxy for the intensities of flow and interconnection between places and, most importantly, a proxy for the uneven geographies of the global space economy. As Sheppard (2002) has shown, the geography of the space economy is historically determined but also reinforced by contemporary practices that open up ‘worm holes' that act as short cuts for economic flows. As he argued, time cannot totally trump space and there is a need to recognise “relational inequalities within, networked spaces” (Sheppard, 2002, 308). He goes on to “advance the idea of positionality as a way of capturing the shifting, asymmetric, and path-dependent ways in which the futures of places depend on their interdependencies with other places”. Business travel, because of the social space it constructs, is a major producer of the worm holes Sheppard described and reinforces familiar, global triad-based uneven geographies of economic activity (see Dicken, 2007). This means understanding both the significance of presence in the networks but also the way a place is positioned in these networks, what role it has and what type of power relations exist between it and other nodes in the network.
There isn't the scope to cover the latter here. Instead we focus upon the former and the way business travel allows some metrically distance places to become closely connected through topological social spaces and ‘worm holes' while, at the same time, reinforcing the isolation of other places. In line with the ideas of Nowicka (2006), we argue that whilst it is tempting to get carried away with discussions of time-space compression and to completely switch focus onto social topologies of space where metric locatedness does not matter, studying business travel reveals the continued importance of location in relational networks. Interviews revealed that the degree of intensity with which a place was connected to other cites of economic activity by business travel, i.e. the frequency with which lawyers visited or travelled from an office, continues to be influenced by two factors. First, the positionality of a place in the global economy, something often determined by historical legacies. At its simplest this manifests itself in the presence/absence of transnational law firms. As Beaverstock et al. (1999) noted, the geography of the offices of these firms is far from global and is, instead, geographically selective with activities focussed, in particular, upon North America and Western Europe with a growing presence in Asia (see also Faulconbridge, in press). This geography has been influenced by a globalisation process determined, in the case of English-originating law firms, by an imperial logic with offices opening wherever English firms are most active. Meanwhile American firms have only opened offices where there is significant demand for advice on American law (Morgan and Quack, 2005). Consequently certain places (countries throughout Africa, Russia to a large degree) continue to be excluded from the new economic topologies of capitalism.
Secondly, in addition the influence of metric space over inclusion in relational social spaces also shows how space can continue to be as if not more important than time. With the demise of Concorde air travel has actually become slower in recent years and those places located both metrically and temporally distant from the North American and English heartlands of globalizing law firms are often excluded (Australia where none of the leading firms have offices) or suffer from weaker incorporation (much of Asia) into new topological social spaces. Zook and Brunn (2006) show how air travel time maps are both topological depending on service levels but also metric because of the continued friction of distance. To travel to/from Asia or Australia from the heartlands of globalizing law firms requires journeys of at least 12 hours and up to 16 hours and the associated costs of at least £3,000 (US$6,000) for a business class ticket. In comparison the transatlantic hop between New York and Western Europe or London and the rest of Europe is, both financially and temporally, less costly. As noted above, these issues are considerations in the mobility of lawyers. This result in less frequent travel to/from offices in such metrically distanciated locations and relative isolation because of limited opportunities to construct the types of social spaces described above. As one lawyer put it:
The interviewee sets up the situation as potentially beneficial suggesting the autonomy that metric distance grants offices is liked by lawyers in Asia . However, if we consider all of the advantages associated with relational, topological social spaces laid out above this seems more problematic. Of course, these situations are constantly in flux and as countries in Asia, and particularly China become more and more important actors in the global economy this situation might begin to evolve. In this sense, as Callon and Law (2004) argue, the topologies of the global space economy and the social spaces associated with its enactment are perhaps best conceived as a gel, multiple, open and constantly changing in fluid ways as new contexts and priorities reshape their geographies. Nevertheless, as this example shows, we should not assume that this displaces the need for an understanding of the very real impacts of positionality and metric locatedness in these new forms of mobility and associated connectivity.
We began by suggesting that the growing importance of business travel in the lives of executives made it surprising that the topic which, in our eyes if such a fertile area for future research, had received such limited attention. For geographers, scholars of management and sociologists there seems to be many unanswered questions about the role, effects and ways of managing business travel in the contemporary economy. In this chapter we have attempted to begin to point towards some of what we see as the most interesting questions in this respect. We have called for studies to move beyond examining solely the functionality of business travel in terms of how it ensures the job gets done and promoted analyses that seek to understand the role of business travel in reproducing the global space economy. In this respect, two conclusions are particularly significant.
First, the proliferation of business travel journeys and the seemingly dynamic nature of their geographies makes understanding the added-value gained from face-to-face encounter and meetingness (Urry, 2003) essential. We have begun to flesh out a number of important ideas here about how business travel and embodied encounters enable, alongside virtual encounters, the construction of new forms of ‘network captital' (Larsen et al. 2006), relational proximity (Amin, 2002; Faulconbridge, 2006; in press) and network embeddedness (Hess, 2004). Most importantly this reinforces recent suggestions (Urry, 2000; 2003; Sheller and Urry, 2006) that fundamental sociological ideas such as trust and familiarity cannot, due to mobility trends in the current epoch, solely be associated with metric closeness. This is not to say embodied encounters are not important. Instead, as the examples of activities in globalizing law firms' shows, it is important recognise the news strategies being employed by firms to open up the types of social spaces needed for effective business.
This discussion does, however, raise some important questions. For example, we know little about how frequent repeat travel needs to be after an initial embodied encounter to prevent the decay of any relationship established. In the language of Callon and Latour (2004) it seems that such relationships may be flickering and in need of long-term nurturing. At present we don't fully understand the temporal dynamics of this. Similarly we don't know enough about how the duration and nature of embodied encounter might influence the construction of topological social spaces. Licoppe (2004) raises a number of interesting issues when he describes how phone calls occur more or less frequently and for shorter or longer durations depending on geographical proximity. It would seem important, then, to consider if the variations in the duration of embodied encounters strengthens relationships and whether the nature of activities (work versus social etc) further influences this. Finally, in the context of professional service firms, we do not know what differences exist between intra-firm (colleague-to-colleague) versus extra-firm (professional-to-client; professional-to-strategic partner) relationships and whether business travel can construct the same types of relational space in all cases. Here we have focussed upon intra-firm dynamics. Future research should be expanded to also cover the extra-firm dimension.
Second, our findings suggest that we should not write-out geography from these discussions. Whilst it is clear that mobility and time-space compression have significantly altered the relationship between metric distance and concepts of proximity, geography still seems to matter in a number of ways (Sheppard, 2002; Nowicka, 2006). As we described in relation to globalizing law firms, this can be in relation to presence/absence and positionality in networks as well as actual metric distance when the frictions of time continue to trump space as a defining feature of social action. This clearly deserves further investigation as understanding the way these influences upon business travel (re)produce the geography of the global space economy is significant. For example, it would seem important to consider how the growing influence of Asian economies on the activities of all global firms is or is not leading to economic priorities overcoming the hindrance of time described above. Moreover, and unexamined here, it would seem important to consider if business travel is used to construct relationships with the same or different managerial and sociological characteristics across space. So, for example, is collaboration always the desired outcome of such relationships or is command and control sometimes more important? How does geography determine this – i.e. are relations between the London and New York offices and the London and Kiev offices of globalizing law firms the same? Our initial investigations suggest not (Beaverstock et al. 2000; Faulconbridge, in press) but this deserves further attention.
It would seem, then, that there remains a number of important question about business travel that need exploring. In the future this is likely to become of significance in policy debates (see Green and Hardill, this volume), not least because of the need to tackle the climate change impacts associated with air travel. Better understanding the role of business travel in contemporary business and opportunities for its strategic management and use may allow important steps to be taken towards resolving the dilemma raised by the Chairman and Senior Partner of KPMG.
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Table 1: Business visitor trends (000s), 1985-2005
Source: O.N.S. (2005; adapted from Tables 1.03, p26 and 1.04, p27)
Table 2: Number of business visits by destination and region of residence (000s), 2001-2005
Overseas residents' business visits to the U.K. by region of residence
U.K. residents' business visits by region of visit
Source: O.N.S. (2005, adapted from Tables 2.03, p36 and 3.03, p58)
Table 3: Number of business visits by country of residence and country of visit (000s), 2005
Source: O.N.S. (2005, adapted from Tables 4.04, p82 and 5.04, p105).
Table 4: Overseas residents' visits to the U.K. by area of visit (000s), 2005
Source: O.N.S. (2005, adapted from Table 4.11, pp94-5)
Table 5: Airline business class travel flows in Europe, 2002-2005
Source: Witlox et. al. (2007)
Table 6: Exemplary professional service firms
Source: Firms websites
** Jonathan V. Beaverstock, School of Geography, University of Nottingham
Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in D. Hislop (ed) (2008) Mobility and Technology in the Workplace, London, Routledge, pp. 87-102.