It’s the tried-and-true story of the pandemic: Over the past year Chad Flanagan connected with many clients and colleagues in other locations through virtual visits.

Like many in the business world, he is hoping with a new vaccine and the loosening travel restrictions that he’ll be able to plan more in-person visits this year.

That’s not to say he’s not grateful for how technology has helped business over the past many months. Virtual meetings have filled the gaps and made connections still happen.

“Much like other businesses we started to lean on collaborative tools to connect with our clients and connect with each other,” said Flanagan, a CPA at Eide Bailly, a certified public accounting and business advisory firm in Fargo, N.D. “We have been very pleased with how that's gone, just in terms of staying efficient and productive and communicating with each other and our clients.”

Flanagan said, like him, many of his team members are eager to get back in front of clients and that the company is looking at ways to do more of that this year.

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“We're not to where we were before the pandemic. We are looking to change the ways we work with clients, and so travel might look different,” he said. “We still need to have that face-to-face interaction with clients, and that we still have a travel requirement, but it might look different than it did before the pandemic.”

Instead of sending a whole audit team to a client for a week, for instance, it might now send only a few for a few days. Also, those visits may incorporate more than just an audit. “We might focus our time talking to clients about more advisory things, how we help them with their growth or manage risk, those types of things, and just have more value-added conversations as we focus our time together on being very productive,” he said.

Most of the company’s travel is regional, but it does have a footprint that goes down to Texas and as far west as California. Most of the travel is done by vehicle, but those long-distance trips are better served by plane.

Air travel is coming back, according to Shawn Dobberstein, executive director of Hector International Airport in Fargo – though the passenger numbers currently are still unlike they were pre-pandemic.

“We’re better now than we were at the start of COVID,” Dobberstein said. “For the calendar year we were down 49% over the calendar year 2019. If you go back to the start of the pandemic, like March, we were down over 96% and then each month since March we've gradually gotten better.”

He said by the end of 2020 the airport was down 56.9% compared to December 2019. “We'll see what 2021 brings,” he said.

Dobberstein said he believes many people are still apprehensive about traveling on a plane, not only for fear of catching COVID-19 but because of restrictions that might be in place in other places.

“If you're going to go to Hawaii for a week's vacation and you have to quarantine for 14 days in a hotel, there's not much sense in traveling,” he said. “So you have to constantly keep on top of what's happening in the destination that you're going to, and then adjust accordingly.”

“If you're going there for business for a two- or three-day business trip and you're supposed to quarantine for a week. Well, how do you make that happen? It's an ever-changing dynamic of mandates and restrictions across the country; there isn't a lot of commonality from one state to another.”

Despite these fears, some business projects call for boots on the ground – and that, in some instances, means boarding a plane.

SEH Inc., a company that specializes in architecture, engineering, and environmental work for public and private sectors, is headquartered in St. Paul but with offices in Minnesota, the Dakotas and other Midwestern states. As such, some of its employees may have to travel out of state from time to time.

“We may have a team member who has expertise in geotechnical engineering who is in offices from St. Paul, but we need him or her on a project in Sioux Falls, S.D.,” said Benita Crow, vice president and regional leader at SEH. She said the company in 2020 did not suspend travel completely. “Much of the work can be done virtually, but there are times when you need the boots on the ground at the project site.”

Looking past the pandemic, it is unclear what travel will look like in the future, but for those companies that have adopted technology to connect with their clients and colleagues will likely continue that to some degree post-pandemic.

“Most definitely virtual meetings will continue,” Crow said, noting that the company learned how quickly it could adapt to a new way of working. Even when employees are able to go back to the offices, a fair number will continue working remotely. “We’re located in multiple states, and virtual meetings have broken down those office walls or regional boundaries. We can easily have people from our Bismarck office on a call with Indiana folks or Iowa staff, and the use of virtual meetings has helped us be more connected. There has been much more collaboration across office and state lines. I look forward to that continuing.”

Crow said she is excited about the possibilities of traveling more in 2021.

“Personally, just re-connecting. That is what is most important to me and what I look forward to in a post-pandemic environment,” Crow said. “My hope is that in 2021, the pandemic subsides, we are on a road to recovery and we are able to safely gather again with our colleagues and clients. …

“Businesswise, I continue to get energized by the solutions we provide to very complex challenges our cities, counties, and private companies face. So many of our clients are facing an uphill battle to provide for their citizens and create opportunities. I look forward to what we can do to help them.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or at aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com.