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Virus hammers business travel as wary companies nix trips

Amazon and other big companies are trying to keep their employees healthy by banning business trips, but they’ve dealt a gut punch to a travel industry already reeling from the virus outbreak.

The Seattle-based online retail giant has told its nearly 800,000 workers to postpone any non-essential travel within the United States or around the globe. Swiss food giant Nestle told its 291,000 employees worldwide to limit domestic business travel and halt international travel until March 15. French cosmetics maker L’Oréal, which employs 86,000 people, issued a similar ban until March 31.

Starbucks Corp. on Wednesday turned its party-like annual meeting scheduled for March 18 in Seattle, into a virtual affair. The event, which drew 4,000 shareholders last year, was supposed to be held at a theater in downtown Seattle. A virus cluster has emerged in Washington state, however, with nine deaths reported.

Other companies, like Twitter, are telling their employees worldwide to work from home. Google gave that directive to its staff of 8,000 at its European headquarters in Dublin on Tuesday.

Major business gatherings, like the Geneva International Motor Show and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, have also been canceled.

On Tuesday, Facebook confirmed it will no longer attend the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, which is scheduled to begin March 13. And the 189-nation International Monetary Fund and its sister lending organization, the World Bank, announced they will replace their regular spring meetings in Washington — scheduled for mid-April — with a “virtual format.”

Michael Dunne, the CEO of ZoZo Go, an automotive consulting company that specializes in the Chinese market, normally travels from California to Asia every six weeks. But right now he’s not planning to cross the Pacific until June.

“With everything at a standstill, I do not feel a sense of missing the action,” Dunne said. “But there is no better catalyst for business than meeting people in person.”

Robin Ottaway, president of Brooklyn Brewery, canceled a trip to Seoul and Tokyo last week. He has indefinitely suspended all travel to Asia and also just canceled a trip to Copenhagen that was scheduled for March.

“I wasn’t worried about getting sick. I’m a healthy 46-year-old man with no preexisting conditions,” Ottaway said. “My only worry was getting stuck in Asia or quarantined after returning to the U.S. And I’d hate to be a spreader of the virus.”

The cancellations and travel restrictions are a major blow to business travel, which makes up around 26% of the total travel spending, or around $1.5 trillion per year, according to the Global Business Travel Association.

The association estimates the virus is costing the business travel industry $47 billion per month. In a recent poll of 400 member companies, the group found that 95% have suspended business trips to China, 45% have cut trips to Japan and South Korea and 23% have canceled trips to Europe.

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