Travel, office space demand will return post-Covid, says economist

By Greg Dalgetty | May 21, 2020 | Last updated on May 21, 2020
2 min read
Business man looking at big bright opened door concept
© Rancz Andrei / 123rf Stockphoto

Covid-19 has taken a toll on the travel, retail and oil sectors, but a new report suggests the future of these industries might not be so grim.

The report, authored by Avery Shenfeld, chief economist with CIBC, acknowledged that while consumer habits have changed during the pandemic, they won’t necessarily stick around when the Covid crisis is over.

“You could have always stood six feet away from your friends, or met with your neighbours online,” Shenfeld wrote. “The fact that you chose not to is evidence that these behaviours will disappear when Covid-19 does.”

Shenfeld focused on consumers’ “revealed preferences” for spending money. Leisure travel, he noted, “was expanding before this crisis and should one day fully return, albeit only gradually due to the recession’s losses in income and wealth.”

Business travel has also been crushed by Covid-19, but, prior to the pandemic, it had been growing in sync with global trade, Shenfeld wrote. That revealed preference “suggests that conferences and in-person meetings will still be used to build business-to-client relationships.”

While video-conferencing technology has become indispensable during the pandemic, Shenfeld expressed doubt that platforms like Zoom will replace in-person conferences. Zoom, Shenfeld observed, had been around for almost a decade before the virus hit, but there was “no momentum toward large conferences being conducted virtually.”

Shenfeld acknowledged that e-commerce — which was already becoming the “preferred mode for early adopters” before Covid-19 — will continue to take a bite out of bricks-and-mortar retail stores when the pandemic is over. But that bite could prove to be more of a nibble if enough online shoppers have disappointing e-commerce experiences.

“Some will have tried home delivery and faced long delays and half-filled orders, and will happily return to in-store shopping,” Shenfeld wrote.

With “hundreds of millions” of people around the world now working from home, it’s possible Covid-19 could hurt the demand for office space, but Shenfeld noted that the “vast majority” of employers and employees have expressed a preference for working at the office.

“The technology to work at home has been in place for decades, but that’s not what was preferred,” Shenfeld wrote. “Co-working facilities like WeWork were in fact aimed at those who could have hunkered down at their kitchen tables but chose not to.”

Shenfeld said he expects office space to be “as much in demand as it had been” before the pandemic. If anything, he wrote, there could be a need for additional floor space “if we remain even slightly cautious about future pandemics.”

Once things start returning to normal, the demand for oil will also return, Shenfeld predicted.

“Getting back to the office, and to leisure activities, also means that the demand for oil as a transportation fuel isn’t nearly as dead as it looks today,” he wrote. “That said, demand for hybrids and electric vehicles will also return once gasoline is no longer this cheap.”

Greg Dalgetty