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The New Business Travel

When it comes to business travel this year, the theme is still lean and mean, although the industry seems to be making a comeback.

Business and convention travel have taken a triple hit since 1998, dipping more than 14% in the wake of the technology crash, the terrorism alerts following 9/11 and corporate finance crackdowns spurred by the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

Since then, most organizations have modified the way they use business travel. New rules and new tools have altered the landscape entirely, and there's more change to come. Here are some key business travel trends on the horizon:

More Trips: Business travelers took almost 4% more trips last year than in 2003. In 2004, 38.3 million people, or 18% of all U.S. adults, took a total of 210.5 million business trips, according to the 2004 Business Traveler Study by the Travel Industry Association of America, the National Business Travel Association and the Institute of Business Travel Management. Those trips accounted for almost one-third of all domestic travel and brought the industry $153.2 billion. This year, about 19% of U.S. business travelers anticipate taking more trips than they did last year, and 74% of corporate travel managers expect to see increases in volume, studies by the TIAA, NBTA, Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell and Yankelovich Partners show.

Business and Pleasure: Between 60% and 70% of all business travelers took at least one combined business and leisure trip in 2004, multiple studies show. Most are taking their spouses, and some are also taking their children. "What's driving that is this concept of time poverty," says Gary Sain, chief marketing officer/partner for travel marketing firm Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell. "When you're at home, you're always running errands and doing things with the family and Little League and a lot of other social pressures. So if I'm going to Florida on a business trip and I can bring my spouse and we can have two or three days after that where it's just us, I think that's appealing to a lot of people."

Online Reservations: Leisure travelers have led the way when it comes to online travel arrangements. Now those same people who've been booking their vacations via computer for years are turning to the internet for business travel, too. Today, seven in 10 business travelers use the internet to obtain information. Five in 10 then make their reservations online, according to YPBR's and Yankelovich Partners' 2005 National Business Travel Monitor. Of those online reservations, 83% are for hotel, 68% for airlines and 45% for car rental.

Travel Management: Watch for internet-based travel management programs to become more popular as companies look for ways to better manage the way employees book and pay for trips. By incorporating their individual travel policies into the tools, companies can make sure employees don't exceed spending caps and that they use preferred hotels, airlines, rental car agencies and other vendors whose terms have been negotiated companywide.

Personalized Service: Look for more hotels to personalize their services for frequent guests. Visitor profiles will outline preferences such as type of pillow, room type, proximity of room to elevators, checkout times, high-speed internet connections and other individual choices. "Business travelers and leisure travelers both want that hotel or that travel experience to recognize who they are and their individual needs and not necessarily use a one-size-fits-all concept," Sain says. "If you like the USA Today paper versus the New York Times, why should the general manager make the decision that all people should read the New York Times? Everyone should be given a choice. Travel companies and travel providers that can offer that customization will be the real winners. And people usually will pay a premium for that."

A time crunch at home is leading many travelers to take family along on business trips, says travel expert Gary Sain.

Self Check-In: About 60% of business travelers would like the ability to check into their hotel rooms without stopping at the front desk, the Travel Monitor survey shows. Hotels haven't yet embraced the idea because they're in the hospitality business, and their value is in making people feel welcome, industry watchers say.

Hottest Amenities: A free breakfast is becoming more important to hotel guests than free in-room high-speed internet access, Sain says. That's because technology is changing the way business travelers work. Instead of plugging into a high-speed access line, business travelers increasingly use their personal digital assistants to read and send e-mail. Another amenity on its way out: Mini-bars in guest rooms, which only 10% of business travelers rated as important to them.

In-Room Gadgets: It's a small thing, but a single malfunction can ruin your whole day. Only 18% of travelers surveyed by Kelton Research on behalf of the Hilton chain trust hotel alarm clocks to wake them up on time. Most consider programming these clocks more complicated and stressful than programming their VCRs at home or even filing their income taxes. In response, Hilton rooms now come equipped with simplified clocks that have plug-in space for guests' personal MP3 players. Watch for hotels to increasingly add other high-tech amenities, such as iPod music mini-bars in each room.

No Waiting: Orlando International Airport is implementing two measures this year that can help business travelers skip long lines. In a pilot program that's getting national attention, frequent travelers can register with the airport by filling out an application, providing fingerprint and iris data and passing background checks. Once certified, they'll presumably be able to breeze through the security checkpoints. On their way home, drivers who have a statewide electronic toll device can leave the long-term parking garage through an E-Pass lane, skipping the parking attendant booth. Parking fees are automatically deducted from the traveler's E-Pass or SunPass account.

Longer Lead Time: Meeting planners expect to book 19% more business this year than in 2004, YPBR's figures show. And one of the big surprises is that they're booking in advance again. Today, the average lead time for meetings of fewer than 100 attendees is six months, says YPBR's Sain.