Conference and Meeting Travel: Five ways it differs from other business travel

business travelAs I write this, I’m en route to Chicago from New York, the first leg of a trip that will bring me to Vancouver where I’ll be when this story runs. For the first time in a few years, I’m headed to a professional conference, and the preparation process, it has occurred to me, is different from other forms of business travel. From the packing list to the mindset, it’s unlike the other business trips I’ve taken this year.

So, how is conference and meeting travel different? Here are five ways that came to mind pretty quickly:

1. The packing list: my bag is a lot lighter than it usually is (I’ll write more about this later in the week). Convention and meeting travel usually translates to a lighter load (unless you’re stuck toting last-minute items that weren’t shipped in advance)2. The intent is focused: when I go to a conference or event, I usually don’t have a lot of ancillary business scheduled … unlike a routine trip to see my team in London, in which case I try to lump in both business and travel stuff with friends, contacts and former colleagues. On a conference trip, I’m only thinking about the conference – nothing else.

3. The schedule and priorities shift: on a normal business trip, I try to have a return flight later on my final day in town. This gives me the maximum amount of time on the ground relative to cost, ultimately making my trip more productive (better return on investment). On a convention/conference trip, you can wind up stuck in town for a final morning, in order to maximize the value of the last night of the event – and the day after becomes a total flush.

4. The pace and agenda are wacky: client visits, regular visits with my team and even sales calls tend to be predictable. Even if I can tack on recreational travel or additional business, I tend to know what’s going on before I hit the ground, and not much changes once I arrive. Sure, crazy stuff arises from time to time, but most trips are predictable. One conference trips, you wind up hoping to score meetings, drum up some new contacts and just “see what’s out there.” This means that a lot can change quickly, and you have to be ready for anything!

5. The end is much more welcome: at the end of a convention, I usually just want to get home. I’m tired from walking around, making contacts, meeting people I know and generally being “on.” Even trips to meet with clients aren’t this exhausting, because the agenda is usually set and the objectives are so specific. On the last day of a conference, I actually find myself looking forward to getting on a plane … for a change.

Five good reasons to screw up your frequent flier mile strategy

business travel frequent flier mile strategiesThere isn’t much that’s precious to a business traveler (except time off the road) – at least not that you can touch. Maybe that’s why road warriors find frequent flier miles to be so important. They are at once a visible reward for suffering the slings and arrows of business travel, an indicator of class in an implicitly hierarchical community and a ticket to leisure travel later. If they accumulate in one place, they can become pretty useful … which is why they white collar travel folks make the flying decisions they do.

Mileage balances can influence decisions about airlines, flight times and payment methods. They can make a three-hour layover seem worthwhile. They can lead to absurd decisions which, at the moment of purchase, appear to be completely rational.

So, when decisions that run counter to this mileage-accumulation philosophy become necessary, the questions from other business travelers can be swift and judgmental. For the past two years, my miles have landed all over the place, and now that business travel is again a part of my life, that trend seems likely to continue – a prospect that would have horrified me back in 2002.

Why the change of heart? Here are five reasons I’ve abandoned the traditional business traveler’s frequent flier mileage strategy:1. Business comes first: if I can maximize my time at my destination, get better flights or use a more convenient airport, I get more out of my trip (from a business perspective). That’s what matters most to me. Period.

2. Status benefits really aren’t worth it: the time and discomfort associated with adjusting my schedule to accumulate miles, I’ve found, is ultimately more painful than flying coach from New York to London on a crowded flight. The eventual upgrade cure is far worse than the inconvenient and uncomfortable air travel disease.

3. Price matters: nothing is more important than getting to the right place at the right time, but price comes next. Travel expenses aren’t like billable hours or closed deals: they don’t benefit me or my business. Is it really worth paying extra to score some extra miles?

4. Stress sucks: after business objectives and price, I tend to value the path of least resistance. Working on the road is hard enough: making it worse to attain platinum status sooner isn’t sufficient reward for the necessary sacrifices.

5. Loyalty shouldn’t be displaced: obviously, frequent flier programs are brand loyalty plays. Like other business travelers, though, I have other loyalty considerations, such as my business and the people important to me back home. Some things are more important than early boarding.

Road warriors delivered last year, business travel coming back

business travelLast year is closed, but we’re still sorting out what it all means, especially as the data continues to come in. For business travel, 2010 was expected to be a turning point, as corporations shook off the aguish associated with the global financial crisis and started to send employees back out on the road again. Following a 14.1 percent nosedive in business travel in 2009, 2010 appears to have delivered a small up-tick, as expected.

According to the National Business Travel Association, the corpie folks spent 2.3 percent more on travel last year than they did in 2009, which was a truly dismal year. Spending levels are still below what we saw in 2008, consequently, but there’s more recovery in front of us: the NBTA forecasts a 5 percent increase in business travel spending in 2011.

Michael W. McCormick, NBTA Executive Director and COO said, “Our research is ringing in the new year with reason for cautious optimism. Based on the way 2010 began, the year wrapped up better than expected thanks to a number of factors including higher than expected GDP, stronger exports and very strong corporate profits. These trends are translating into greater business travel spending as companies invest in travel to drive revenues and compete aggressively in a recovering economic environment.”
He added, “International outbound travel in particular remains strong and should continue to grow through 2012 as American companies seek opportunity in robust export markets,” continuing, “2011 should also see a welcome recovery in the group travel market after a number of very difficult years. Companies are once again recognizing the value of face to face meetings with customers, prospects, partners and colleagues to build relationships and set the stage for top-line growth.”

International business spending was the tip of the spear last year, with outbound U.S. business travel spending estimated to have climbed 16.9 percent last year. In 2009, it fell 32.1 percent. Again, last year’s estimated gains weren’t enough to recapture all that was lost 2009, but it is a pretty solid starting point. According to the NBTA statement revealed to Gadling, look for a smaller gain in 2011, only 3.2 percent, because of a weakening dollar.

For the first quarter of 2011, the NBTA expects $58.8 billion to be spent on business travel in the United States, up slightly from $58.7 billion in the fourth quarter of 2010. This is also 6.7 percent above the $55.1 billion spent in the first quarter of last year. Look for business travelers to take 109.9 million trips in the first quarter of this year, up 8.6 percent from 101.2 million in the first quarter of last year.

Business travelers are coming back, which is great news for the airlines. After all, this is where they make their cash. Maybe if these deep pockets start to throw a bit more money at air travel, we’ll have a shot at holding off the introduction of more airline fees!

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Five ways holiday travelers annoy business travelers

holiday travelers and business travelersOn December 23, 1999, I was trying to get from Madison, Wisconsin to Boston Massachusetts. On paper, it didn’t look hard. I had to catch a short fight from Madison to Chicago and another flight from Chicago to Boston. Unsurprisingly, it was snowing in Madison. It was also snowing in Chicago. Flights were canceled quickly and routinely, and crowds backed up in the gate areas. I was starting to wonder if I would make it home in time for Christmas. I finally made it back some time on Christmas Eve, but it was stressful … and yet another taxing holiday experience in what had become a blur of them.

Holiday season travel is rarely enjoyable for anyone, but it can be particularly brutal on business travelers. The pressures of family holiday obligations converge with business demands, and it all comes on the back of a full year of hitting the road, which can mean 40 weeks or more of round trips and enough miles to have nailed platinum status by the end of the second quarter. The one thing business travelers cling to is efficiency. Even if it doesn’t buy much in real impact, it feels better to get through security faster, board the plane smoothly and make a quick exit from the plane and airport upon arrival.

And holiday leisure travelers just make that exponentially more difficult.The folks who travel once or twice a year – or even less frequently than that – tend to throw a monkey wrench into the finely honed travel operations of road warriors. They fumble for documents at airport security checkpoints, take forever to order something as simple as a slice of pizza (how do you choose from both those toppings?!) After a while, the white-collar traveler, perpetually exhausted anyway, begin to hatch conspiracy theories about how leisure travelers are all in cahoots, intent on making his life miserable when all he wants to do is get home and rack open a bottle of holiday cheer.

So, let’s take a look at five ways you can annoy business travelers this holiday season. I’m not suggesting that anyone on either side of this dynamic engage in any behavior modification … because we all know that isn’t going to happen. But if you decide to try – to annoy either less or more – this is how you can go about it:

1. Your kids: I know this is a tough one. If the end-to-end air travel process is difficult for adults on a good day it’s even harder (a) during the holidays, (b) for adults with children and (c) for children. It really does suck. Do what you can, and make an honest effort. Don’t let your kid “cry it out” or practice his first step. You can give up on good parenting for a few hours without causing any lasting damage. Please try to avoid saying, “It’s only for a few hours; we don’t travel often,” to a weary business traveler.

2. Your awareness: is the airport security line moving forward without you? Do you wait until you’re at the x-ray machine to realize you need to remove your coat and shoes? You could turn around to see the eyes rolling, but that would just consume even more time. This also goes for your trip to the food court. Be ready ahead of time, or expect someone to say something.

3. Spread out: take extra seats in the gate area – for your bags or anything else. And then, let your kids play on the floor between seats, so nobody can walk by. The gate area is crowded already, and this is just a heroic way to make a bad situation worse.

4. Camp near a power outlet: it’s hard enough to find a place to plug in, and business travelers are desperate for the short supply. So, be sure to take up this prime real estate … even though you don’t plan to use it at all.

5. Sense of entitlement: assume the same sense of entitlement that road warriors have. And, I’m actually encouraging this one. Nobody really has a right to feel this way, but it is a formula for some incredible street theater!

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Hotels gearing up for battle over the business traveler’s wallet

Hotels gearing up for battle over the business traveler's walletNow that business travelers are coming back into the travel market, everyone can’t stop talking about it. Of course, this is great news for airlines and hotels, as business travelers tend to spend more time on the road, have more financial flexibility and are willing to pay more for exactly the flights and locations they need. The occasional leisure traveler who hunts around for bargains, quite simply, doesn’t have the big cash.

So, it comes as no surprise at all that hotels are getting ready to welcome the business travelers back into the fold. It’s been lonely without these guys for the past two years, I suspect, especially with the budgets they command. And make no mistake about it: though they aren’t actually paying the tab, road warriors do have at least some choice in which hotels and airlines they choose.

Think about a frequent business traveler who spends three nights a week in hotel rooms for 40 weeks a year (it’s not as rare as you think). That’s 120 room-nights. At $200 a night (not unusual for business-friendly hotels in big cities), you’re looking at $24,000 per business traveler per year. That’s a hell of a lot more than a leisure traveler who spends nine nights a year in a hotel and is more price conscious … which could yield less than 10 percent of what one frequent business traveler brings to the table.

What do business travelers want? Obviously, a lot.Last month, I wrote about the findings of a recent Deloitte survey, which found that road warriors (such as those employed by Deloitte itself) want a lot more than a clean room. Work-friendly conditions, in fact, are at the top of the list. The memory of this from my white-collar travel days has not escaped me. I remember setting up my “office” in the room immediately after check-in, and that’s where I spent most of my in-room time during each stay (with crazy business schedules, the bed doesn’t get much use).

According to an article on MSNBC, I’m not alone. For example:

“I try to replicate what’s in my office” said Denis Lacerda, a partner for Rafael Cennamo, a fashion house, who commutes regularly between São Paulo, New York and Miami. Lacerda is currently a guest at the AKA Central Park, an extended-stay hotel that he says provides everything from office supplies and a printer/fax/copy machine to high-speed Internet and access to business TV channels. “All the important things you don’t think about but need to have,” he said.

Why is this so important? Well, back in my consulting days, it wasn’t unusual to put in an 80- or 90-hour work week, much of it coming on the road. You need to know you’ll be comfortable (to the extent possible) while pushing through an insane workload. We’re looking for all kinds of stuff – that hotels are adding – including “bigger desks, better lighting, more outlets and ergonomically correct chairs.”

The eagerness to please business travelers has risen to incredible levels, MSNBC continues:

“It’s a little bit of an arms race,” said Jan Freitag, vice president of global development for STR, a hotel research company. He compares it to when Westin’s “Heavenly Bed” was introduced. “People laughed,” he said, “but there was buzz. Everybody wanted them. Suddenly, it was ‘the Bed Wars.’ “

The needs of business travelers have been exacerbated by technology advancements. With the ubiquity of high-speed internet access and mobile devices, the workday doesn’t end shortly after the sun sets … and in some cases, it can last until shortly before it rises. MSNBC adds:

“With the Internet, e-mail, and cell phone, communication never stops,” said Bruce Ross, chief executive of Celebrity Fashion Group, a private label merchandising company. “You’ve got to work twice as hard today.”

In many cases, the in-room conveniences that this class of traveler wants is a tool in helping them to survive the quickening pace of business rather than merely stay in front of it.

Hotels, hungry for additional revenue and the lower sales costs associated with repeat guests, are investing in improving the business traveler experience, as it will be a critical factor in which brand takes the lead in the coming travel market recovery. The road warrior is coming back, and the hotels are waiting.

So, business travelers, what do you like in a hotel room? Leave a comment below to let us know!