Walmart said Thursday (March 5) it is restricting all cross-border international travel business trips. The large Walmart U.S. Customer Conference – formerly the year beginning meeting – to take place in Dallas next week has also been canceled.
“It seems best to cancel given the size of that meeting, plus the benefit of having our store managers present in their stores during this time. We will have a virtual form of the meeting to share some key points. Within our offices, we will continue to gather in groups for meetings, but we won’t travel for them,” Donna Morris, chief people officer, and Dr. Tom Van Gilder, chief medical officer at the company, said in a note.
Walmart said the travel ban applies to all international markets in which it operates, including trips approved by the executive council. Arrangements will be made to get employees home if they are now located out of the country. Walmart said the travel restrictions will be in place for March and April and the company will reassess the risks.
Domestic travel has been restricted to conferences, trade shows and other events that typically take place on commercial carriers. Walmart will continue to run its private jet fleet which takes executives to stores and clubs each week.
Walmart said the decision to restrict travel is a move toward safety as the company continues to monitor the coronavirus (COVID-19) that has claimed 11 lives in the U.S., with new infection clusters surfacing in California and New York. This is in addition to the Washington state cluster that has claimed the majority of lives.
Walmart.com, headquartered in San Bruno, Calif., reports no real impact on operations. On Wednesday, California officials instituted a state of emergency and a cruise ship coming from Hawaii to San Francisco was not allowed to dock in California late Wednesday.
Jami Dennis, a consultant to suppliers, had several clients headed to Chicago for an expo this week that was canceled at the last minute. She said another big show in Anaheim was canceled after the suppliers were already there and setting up. Dennis said this leaves suppliers in a lurch, having spent money but not allowed time to get their products in the hands of buyers. She said Walmart probably believes a travel ban is warranted to reduce risk.
Dennis expects more meetings will take place virtually between suppliers and buyers but said there is still the matter of samples that are typically sent to Walmart from China and other countries on behalf of suppliers. She said after Sept. 11, 2001, Walmart curtailed travel and also required all samples to be sent through its central printing and mailing distribution center so it could be checked.
Dennis said this is the first time in 20 years she can remember the year beginning meeting being canceled. Dennis said Walmart doesn’t make the decision lightly.
Dennis said the change in consumer behavior will be something buyers have to factor into decisions. She said when air travel slows, people will likely turn to vacations in cars. Post Sept. 11, Dennis said the sale of board games and focus on the fun around home became the new normal. She wonders if more people will buy bikes and hiking gear to take and explore the great outdoors as opposed to going to theme parks and crowded concert venues or beaches.
A large percentage of air travel out of XNA is attributed to Walmart and all the major airlines are reporting less demand. United said it will curtail domestic service by 10% this month and in April with similar cuts in May. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said Thursday on CNBC several corporations have suspended business travel and bookings are down across the country. He said this feels like Sept. 11, more fear-driven and not economically based. Kelly said he’s hopeful this will pass in a month or so as the new cases reported in China are declining.