Still traveling for business, but carefully

Corporate travelers are flying coach more often - or not traveling at all during the recession.

airport travel 88 248 (photo credit: )
airport travel 88 248
(photo credit: )
Airfare wars and room-rate promotions are usually aimed at vacationers, but airlines and hotels are resorting to similar tactics to regain their traditional cash cow - the business traveler. Corporate travelers, who pay higher airfares when they sit in the front cabins of planes or book close to the date of travel, are flying coach more often - or not traveling at all during the recession. And their employers are booking fewer banquet halls and blocks of rooms, leaving many hotels pining for the sizable and reliable revenue that business meetings used to generate. Partly as a result, several major airlines are expected to post losses for the April-June quarter when they report their earnings starting this week. And hotel revenue, which fell sharply in the first quarter from a year earlier, is not expected to show much improvement in the second quarter, either. Marriott International Inc.'s results are due Thursday. Business travelers tend to generate a higher percentage of overall industry revenue than the percentage of total travelers they represent. Of the $641 billion spent by US residents in 2007 on domestic travel and tourism, roughly 33 percent came from business travelers, according to the US Travel Association. But the number of domestic business trips accounted for less than 25% of that year's 2 billion total domestic trips. Boston-based aviation consultant Mark Kiefer of CRA International said the economy is keeping a lid on business travel this year. "We have a case of certain sectors that were consumers of a lot of business travel, like banking and so forth," he said. "The other issue we are grappling with are expectations. There is a lot of uncertainty about when the economy will turn around and by how much." Travel companies are using a range of strategies to lure business travelers. Hotels are offering bonus room-nights, free snacks and drinks, and more flexibility on booking and cancellation policies. Airlines have been offering heavily discounted upgrades and business-oriented fare sales. Discounts have helped lure some vacationers back onto the road. Deutsche Bank analyst Chris Woronka noted that, while US revenue per available room, a key gauge of the hotel industry's performance, was still down by a double-digit percentage since late June, it has shown a marked improvement because summer leisure demand has picked up. But in a recent survey of 285 senior finance executives around the world, 87% said their companies plan to spend less on business travel this year. The American Express/CFO Research Global Business & Spending Monitor found 44% of the executives expect their companies' travel to decline more than 10%. The survey did find that most companies will continue to spend on travel that could generate revenue. Frank Schnur, of American Express's business-travel group, predicts that clients will continue to expect a financial return on their investments in travel, even after the economic recovery. For now, many companies are cutting back. Drew Ramsey, 33, an information-security manager in Phoenix who is a Southwest Airlines frequent flier, says his company has essentially shut down business travel. "Any business travel has to be a necessity; otherwise, people are being asked to use videoconferencing or teleconferences," he said. Traffic in high-end airline seats fell 22% in April, compared with the same month a year earlier, according to the International Air Transport Association. Meanwhile, the number of travelers on coach tickets rose 0.3%. With a shrinking pot of corporate travel dollars, airlines like Southwest are trying new strategies to get business travelers on board. Ramsey said Southwest offered to fast-track him to "A-List" status. That provides a year of reserved-boarding privileges to passengers who belong to the airline's frequent-flier program and take a certain number of flights within a given period. Airlines also are giving business travelers things like Wi-Fi, satellite radio, advance seat assignments and priority boarding to lure them in. In the hotel industry, all kinds of chains that rely on business travelers are feeling the pain. Extended Stay Hotels LLC, which caters to business travelers who need longer-term lodging at lower rates, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing a heavy debtload and a sharp drop in business travel. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Inc. is offering a 4% discount to business-meeting planners who book an event for 10 or more room-nights at some of its brands, including the W, Westin and Sheraton chains. They also get a free snack break from PepsiCo Inc., through August 31, and a hefty bonus of loyalty-program points they can use for personal travel. Hotels are not as agile because they typically negotiate corporate rates months or years in advance. So the rate cuts they're offering now could have a long-term impact on revenue. Continental Airlines CEO Larry Kellner said at a June investor conference that his airline is working its "business [traveler] side very hard because... we could also see a recovery much more quicker if we could get the business traffic back on the airplanes."