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Business travel is grounded by coronavirus outbreak

Business travel is taking a hit from the coronavirus outbreak.

Companies are clamping down on employees taking business trips. A growing number of trade shows and conferences are getting canceled or postponed amid health concerns about mass gatherings of people.

"A lot of these companies live and die by trade shows," said Craig Turner, president of World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara. The events give companies an opportunity to show off their latest products, make contacts and secure orders.

"Any projections they made for 2020 are going to be very different from what they end up," Turner said.

Garrett Leather had planned to attend a business aviation trade show in Shanghai, China, in April, but that event was canceled.

Garrett, based in Cheektowaga, also annually attends a trade show in Switzerland, in late May. But with Switzerland banning public events that attract more than 1,000 people, Garrett president Max Brown doubts the show will go on.

Buffalo-based Rich Products has restricted all employee travel to Asia and within China for its employees, and has scaled back its business travel domestically and across the rest of the world. The only exception: "Trips that directly support essential core business requirements," said Allison Conte, a company spokeswoman.

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The $4 billion food products company also has canceled or postponed non-essential business meetings and events involving gatherings of large groups of people, including participation in trade shows and conferences. In lieu of business travel, Rich Products is encouraging its employees to take advantage of investments the company has made in Microsoft Teams and other digital tools to connect with each other.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended travelers avoid non-essential trips to China, Italy, South Korea and Iran. The Global Business Travel Association polled members last week and found 65% of respondents had canceled meetings, events and conferences.

Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center is prohibiting international work-related travel for its employees, volunteers and students. The cancer center is also advising them against taking any international trips "for any purposes." That includes Canada. But Roswell noted that there are not restrictions on those who live in Canada and commute for their regular work schedules.

Roswell has directed those who have traveled outside the continental U.S. within the past three weeks to notify their supervisor immediately.

[Related: Hospitals, nursing homes in WNY prepare for COVID-19]

Employee travel bans are popping up in other places. The Detroit-based United Auto Workers union has placed a domestic and international travel ban on its staff.

“Road travel will be permitted, and we will provide all personnel education on best practices when on the road or in the workplace," said UAW president Rory Gamble.

Ford Motor Co. has imposed a travel ban on non-essential domestic and international business trips until later this month. According to media reports, two Ford employees in China are recovering from novel coronavirus.

General Motors, which employs nearly 2,950 people in Western New York, has barred workers from traveling to China, Japan, South Korea and Italy, and limited international travel to other locations only for essential matters.

How long the crackdown on travel will last is anyone's guess. Of the corporate travel managers in the Global Business Travel Association poll who had canceled or suspended employee trips, only 31% expected to lift the restrictions within three months. More than half – 54% – said they didn't know when the travel would resume.

That's having an impact on airlines, which are cutting flights, and on hotels, which are seeing fewer rooms filled. Booking Holdings, which owns the Priceline, and Kayak travel reservation sites, said this week that it expects the new coronavirus cutbacks to lead to a 10% reduction in hotel room bookings during the first quarter.

Helane Becker, an analyst at Cowen & Co., said in a note to clients that global travel appears to be down about 25%. She predicted that any recovery probably would be gradual.

"Every day we think we could be near a bottom, and every day we are not," she wrote. "The virus has spread, and the question is how much do people change their travel plans."

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