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Journal of Accountancy Podcast Transcript (Partial) June 24, 2021
The Return of Business Travel
Hosted by Neil Amato
June 24, 2021
“Business travel is on the way back, according to survey and anecdotal data, as well as the line at airport security. Donny Shimamoto, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is someone accustomed to regular travel, with set routines and preferences. That all changed when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, and so Shimamoto had to adapt. He reflects on what he learned from being at home and from being back in airports and onsite with a client.
Also, ENGAGE 2021 panelist Jeremy Bloom, a former world champion in skiing and NFL wide receiver, shares his views on sport specialization at a young age, why our view of failure should be reframed, and what kind of skiing he prefers these days.”
What you’ll learn from this episode:
- Why it felt “weird” for Shimamoto to stay in one place for months at a time.
- What Shimamoto noticed recently about the difference between virtual meetings and in-person ones.
- Why he says that the pandemic underscored one key role of CPAs: risk management.
Neil Amato: Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is senior editor Neil Amato. I’m joined again on the podcast by Donny Shimamoto. I say again, because he’s been a previous guest on our shows, although it’s now been a while, probably about a year since we’ve had Donny on the podcast. Donny’s from IntrapriseTechKnowlogies, and he’s here today to talk about a topic that I believe is near and dear to his heart, but also near and dear to a lot of finance executives’ hearts, as demonstrated in a recent survey. They say that business travel has either come back to pre-pandemic levels or will by the end of this year. Donny, before the pandemic, how often were you traveling for work, for speaking, or for other professional development?
Donny Shimamoto: Thanks, Neil, glad to be back. And I’ve actually been, well, pre-pandemic, I was traveling probably every other week or every three weeks, sometimes two or three times within a week, whether it was to travel to a client’s site to go and work with them or to go and speak at a conference, an AICPA conference or whatever it may be. It was quite a bit back then.
Amato: So, clearly for a long time you adapted as needed. You weren’t getting those air miles or anything. It’s just what everyone had to do. How does someone like you so accustomed to travel get used to being stuck, so to speak?
Shimamoto: It’s funny you say it that way. So a lot of times, when people ask, “What do you do in the pandemic?” and I said, “Well, it was weird for me.” Because I stayed in one place, which I haven’t done for probably 15 years at least. I was in the same place for like a year and a half, maybe even.
So, for me it was really kind of figuring out, oh, is this how everybody else lives? They have a regular schedule, they get up and it’s interesting to be talking to you now, because I just came back from a two-week travel. Actually it was four-week travel, two weeks in Scottsdale, Ariz., two weeks back in what I consider home, Hawaii, but I’ve been living in Las Vegas during the pandemic, so I just got back to Vegas after essentially four weeks of travel and I was like, How did I do this before? Like, I’m so tired from just these two weeks and these two places, and I think it comes back to the whole routine.
Now, I realize too that when I travel, I have a routine when I travel, and that’s what makes travel palatable to me. I book certain types of flights. When I stay at places, I have criteria for what I’m going to stay at. It has to have a desk. It can’t be something where I have to work off the side of the bed or something. I think a lot of it is kind of a pattern and figuring out what works for us.
Amato: So, what are you hearing out there, among other CPAs, or the businesses you’re consulting with, about how they’re feeling about travel these days?
Shimamoto: In general, while being a speaker, it was interesting for me to start to get the requests for in-person speaking engagements. So, for example, my first one is actually at the end of August, but at this point, I have at least one in-person speaking engagement through the end of the year. But it’s also interesting to talk with some of our state societies that are saying they’re still doing everything virtually at least through the end of this year. So I think it really varies, depending upon where in the country you are and what kind of the perception of risk is.
If you think about it, I’m going to tie that back to us as CPAs. That’s what we really need to help our clients. So, whether our client is an external client or whether our client is the other management team members, we need to help them understand risk. What risks does travel pose to the organization, whether it’s to your customers, whether it’s to your employees, right? And what are then the impacts of that?
An important lesson, I think, from the pandemic was that we need to look at risk beyond just finance, because the pandemic itself introduced the concept of safety, health risk. Not just a direct employee safety, but also the safety of the employee’s family members. Because if I was living with an elderly relative, I don’t want to bring that back because they’re more at risk than I myself am, right? So, it is really about the perception of risk and that becomes a very personal perception of risk, because it’s not just about the business, it’s about my family and what other impacts there may be there.
So, I think there is an even greater calling for us as accountants to really help our organizations think through these risks and the risks of travel and what may be worth taking that risk for travel or not worth taking that risk.
Amato: I wouldn’t say things are necessarily normal again. They may never be “normal” again, but what do you think might be different going forward about travel?
Shimamoto: I’m actually kind of wondering whether, because everyone has been saying that and you and I have been saying that, but I’m actually wondering whether “this is not going to go back to ‘normal’ again” really is true. Because, having again just traveled, the line at the TSA was the same. People weren’t maybe as close as they used to be, but it’s the same line and it’s just that people are wearing masks. There is no 6 feet of distance in the plane itself. There isn’t distancing. All the airlines pretty much resumed where they’re booking every single seat. Everything in Vegas opened up to 100% on June 1, and there are no longer the mask requirements either.
We went out for Father’s Day, and it felt like a normal way. There were a bunch of people crowded at the front of the restaurant waiting to get to the table, the majority of which were unmasked. So I do kind of question whether or not we are going to quickly put this pain behind us and move back to what we perceived as normal. Kind of flipping from that, though, as we look at what is the concept of travel. The one benefit that I’ll give credit to the pandemic for is the adoption of these virtual meeting technologies.
And the big difference, I think, is that people need to think differently about how they’re creating engagement and how they’re creating the relationship from these virtual meetings. I give you an example. At my firm, we got our first remote employee 11 years ago. At this point, we’re pretty much all remote and there’s 15 of us, so we all work remote, we’re spread across several states all the way from North Carolina through to Hawaii, and we’ve had to change the way that we run our meetings.
When you come onto a meeting with us, we don’t immediately jump into the agenda. We do the same thing that we would have done if people, for example, were coming into a conference room. The beginning of the meeting, we kind of allocate the first maybe five, 10 minutes for people to kind of get caught up, ask questions about what is happening and what’s going on that may not be directly related to the agenda for the meeting. And then we will proceed at some point, right, to actually have the meeting.
So the question on the travel then starts to become, well, what do I actually need to travel for? I’ll give also a very recent example. Part of what my firm does is finance transformation projects or digital transformation projects, and we started working with a mid-market company that was based in Hawaii.
We explained that our team is all remote and we have done this type of project remotely. But if you’d like we would, even though at that point when we, when this deal was signed several months ago, we said if you want, we’ll come on site. And their COO said, “Yeah, we definitely would want you to come on site. It’s different when someone is in person and we want you to be able to see how our organization works in our office space and everything.” So I went on site; that’s why I was in Hawaii for two weeks. And I can tell you that it is different because after the Zoom meeting ends, which is where a lot of their remote people and my remote team was there, had logged off.
I still had kind of the small little follow-up questions with whoever had showed up in the room. And it is through those conversations that we were then able to get through some of the, well, what do you think the real challenges? Or maybe they didn’t want to say it on the Zoom or maybe it was just me and the COO or the CEO and I would just ask them point blank, you know, “Tell me what you think. What are you really thinking? Because you asked some questions there where I saw that you are maybe not in agreement with what maybe one of your team members had, but so tell me what’s really going on or what you really think that the issue is.” And I don’t think that that will ever be replaced, because once that Zoom meeting ends, that Zoom meeting ends.
Amato: That’s where organizations are really going to have to just really think about what sorts of travel are going to create the value that in-person consulting definitely can have value, but maybe not all meetings that used to be you’d fly to a city, so I guess that’s where we’re headed.
Shimamoto: Yep. I think there’s multiple aspects to it. Part of it is also the relationship building, so the going out for dinner. I’ve heard organizations that are telling everyone, “Bring your lunch and we’ll have lunch together on Zoom.” Not the same, because you don’t have the dynamic of all the multiple of conversations happening. One person can speak at a time on it. So really thinking about what creates value, not just financial value but relationship value and people value, how does that actually help them think about things like ropes courses and things that create team building? We’re looking forward to being able to do that where we just play and have fun together. Those types of experiences can be replicated in the digital world, yet.
Amato: Donny, great points. Thank you so much for being on. We look forward to seeing you in person sometime soon.
Shimamoto: Likewise, Neil, thanks so much.
Amato: Again, that was CPA Donny Shimamoto on the topic of business travel. A recent survey of finance decision-makers in business and industry shows that more than a third have either resumed pre-pandemic levels of travel or plan to do so by the end of the year. Posting by Friday will be an article with more of the survey details and comments from CPAs about their companies’ approach to getting back on the road.