A few years ago I interviewed Tyler Morse, the developer working to restore Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK Airport into a hotel. A large chunk of the business, he told me, would be hidden from the travelers who came to sip cocktails and gawk at the soaring central atrium. This was the conference center: a subterranean zone of banquet halls and offices that would provide a crucial revenue stream. “A big part of airport hotel business is the 12- to 15-person meeting,” Morse went on. “People fly in, you just need to meet, then they fly out.” You didn’t need a city to do that, just an airport and a conference room. Suits were already meeting near hubs in Dallas or Chicago; American executives with partners from Europe, the Middle East, or Africa could meet at his hotel. And fly right back home again.
It seems insane, but that’s the way things go in the corporate world. For businesses that trade primarily in ideas, study after study has shown enormous benefits associated with being in one place. Economists call this the “agglomeration effect”; it explains why firms keep clustering in places like Silicon Valley despite the expense.
I thought of Morse last week after a single biotech leadership meeting at a Boston hotel was found responsible for 77 of Massachusetts’ 95 Covid-19 cases. I thought about all the corporate gathering that ultimately doesn’t seem all that necessary. If there is any sign of our future in Italy, where everything but groceries and pharmacies has been shut down, a once-in-a-lifetime break with normalcy is ahead of us.
Virtually every activity that entails or facilitates in-person human interaction seems to be in the midst of a total meltdown as the coronavirus outbreak erases Americans’ desire to travel. The NBA, NHL, and MLB have suspended their seasons. Austin’s South by Southwest canceled this year’s festival and laid off a third of its staff. Amtrak says bookings are down 50 percent and cancelations are up 300 percent; its CEO is asking workers to take unpaid time off. Hotels in San Francisco are experiencing vacancy rates between 70 and 80 percent. Broadway goes dark on Thursday night. The CEOs of Southwest and JetBlue have both compared the impact of COVID-19 on air travel to 9/11. (That was before PresidentDonald Trump banned air travel from Europe on Wednesday night.) Universities, now emptying their campuses, have never tried online learning on this scale. White-collar companies like Amazon, Apple, and the New York Times (and Slate!) are asking employees to work from home for the foreseeable future.