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.

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!

TSA to impede travel market recovery? Not buyin’ it

TSA airport security

When I finally crawled out of bed and caffeinated Saturday morning, I made the rounds on Twitter and found a bold statement by travel journalist Christopher Elliott: “Thanks to TSA, 2011 could be a flat year for travel”. Despite the digging he did, I’m just not buying it. Passenger inconvenience, especially when it comes to leisure trips, isn’t likely to have a major effect on the travel industry in 2011.

You’ve read it from me on Gadling before: it isn’t the leisure traveler that defines the travel market; it’s the business traveler. These are people who have no choice but to hit the road, whether because they are instructed by their bosses or because they recognize business opportunities that they need for growth or simply to keep their companies alive. As business conditions continue to improve in the broader economy, demand for flights is likely to increase, and those buying tickets will have relatively little choice in the matter.

We’re looking back on what’s shaping up to be a positive year for the travel industry, particularly the airlines. And, according to Elliott, on his blog, “2011 was shaping up to be the best year for travel since the recession began.” He cites expectations of higher prices, even if only slightly, but pent up demand by travelers for “long-postponed vacation[s].”

Thanks to TSA, 2011 could be a flat year for travel http://bit.ly/gsbOfTless than a minute ago via web

The next year of the recovery could be imperiled, however, by new measures implemented by the Transportation Security Administration, specifically body scanners. In fact, Elliott writes:

But now that the Transportation Security Administration has introduced full-body scanners at many American airports, and subjected those who opt out of the machines to an “enhanced” pat-down, the 2011 outlook has changed, say travelers.

To support this claim, he talks to Jeff Cohen, an Austin, Texas-based securities trader, who claims to be “torn about whether I’ll travel more next year or not.” Cohen tells Elliott he goes on “a couple of large trips a year” and had a big one in mind for the first half of next year, “to somewhere exotic.” Now, Cohen tells Elliott, “[T] he recent TSA crackdown has me rethinking that.”

Further, the Consumer Travel Alliance sees the traveling public as generally unlikely to increase its travel activity. Elliott continues:

A majority (46 percent) say they will travel “about the same” as they did this year. Slightly less than a third (30 percent) will travel more, while just less than a quarter (23 percent) will travel less. This contradicts several earlier surveys, which had predicted a significant upswing in travel next year.

The key word here is consumer. The focus, here, is on leisure travel. The needs of business travelers are again overlooked.

Let’s consider Cohen’s case for example. So, he’s rethinking his leisure travel plans for next year. If he has to hop on a plane to close a deal or bring in a new client, is he going to do that? Would he sacrifice a two-hour flight for a 10-hour drive do so? I don’t know the guy, but drawing on my white-collar experiences, I think I know how he’d react to a major business opportunity a few states away … and it wouldn’t involve turning the key to the ignition.

The business traveler really has little choice in whether to hit the road. Could he skip a business opportunity or pass on a project in favor of something local – or to wait for a gig nearby to arise? Of course. But, that would mean turning down the very fees that put food on the table. Sales professionals need to travel to bring in business, fulfillment teams (e.g., the folks who provide the good or service sold) may have to take to the friendly skies and support sometimes needs to be provided on site. This is just how the nature of commerce has evolved. If conditions continue to improve, more of these people will be buying plane tickets.

And, they’ll pay more for them.

The nature of business travel, given that it occurs in order to support subsistence or the accumulation of wealth (both important), is that it is inelastic, at least relative to leisure travel. There is effectively no choice but to get on a plane, unless extreme measures are brought into the equation. Since business travel relatively inelastic, these travelers will pay more, which supports a continued travel industry recovery.

The fact that business travelers tend to be willing to pay more for their tickets also means that they have less choice in whether to fly. Sure, there are tools out there such as videoconferencing and online collaboration software that can provide a substitute, but a recovering market means that there’s more capital available, which facilitates investment in face-to-face meetings. When your boss tells you to travel, you travel.

As a result, the decision to travel is itself relatively inelastic for the business traveler.

So, if the business traveler is the backbone of the travel industry recovery, the TSA is unlikely to get in the way in 2011, even if every passenger listens to the snap of a rubber glove before an invasive pat-down begins.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the leisure traveler. The impact of the TSA security measures may involve a bit of hype there, too.

Even before Thanksgiving, the close to two thirds of consumers thought the body scans weren’t a big deal, with 70 percent stating they didn’t expect the enhanced security measures to slow travel down during the busiest travel season of the year.

Further, economic growth, if it occurs, will provide consumers with more disposable income. Those who have an interest in travel are likely to become more ambitious, taking the trips they’ve always wanted to. Elliott finds many who disagree with this assessment, but there’s nothing like having a freshly filled checking account to alter your perspective.

We all love to hate the TSA, and I’ll admit that I’m among the many in that camp. There’s nothing worse than waiting in a long security line at a crowded airport. The notion of having to devise and carry out strategies for getting through the checkpoints faster indicates the absurdity of what goes on in airports today. Efficiency is as low as customer service, and there’s little we can do about it.

That said, will body scans and pat-downs impede a travel market recovery next year? It doesn’t seem likely. General global economic trends will determine how many people get on planes next year, not the policies crafted and implemented by government employees.

[photo by oddharmonic via Flickr]

Hotels and spas use corporate retreats for sweet financial revenge

It’s hard to tell who wants a business travel rebound: business travelers or the hospitality companies that cater to them. Routine road warrior jaunts suck, but there are executive retreats, training programs and other opportunities that do appeal even to the most jaded of the white collar folks.

So, the hotels are fighting to get business travelers back, according to Business Insider, and they’re getting creative. Luxury properties, including spas, were nailed by the financial crisis and ensuing recession. They have a lot of ground to make up. To do this, they’re coming up with new programs to get the corporate folks to open their wallets. Some of them are pretty bizarre, even retaliatory. Business Insider reports:

Their new approach is luring clients back to their bedrooms for “must-have” bonding and training sessions that put execs in compromising positions.

Retreats that specialize in corporate getaways have been cooking up programs that encourage extremely awkward and potentially dangerous bonding activities, like fake-trying to kill each other.

Call it the, “You’re putting us out of business? We’re going to push you off tall objects, hike mountains naked with 50 pounds on your back, try to kill each other and make you beg for more” – strategy.

Even with these implications, the response from the business world still seems to be a resounding, “Thank you, sir! May I have another!”

Bank of America, Google and Toyota are among the companies that have gotten on board with these programs. Some of them do get pretty weird, such as:

The icing on the cake is The Death Race, where co-workers sit for 45 minutes in an ice-broken pond, gulp a gallon of milk (even if you’re lactose intolerant), crawl under barbed wire and sprint up a greased-up ramp.

Don’t you remember when the corporate people were just interested in making money? It was all so much easier back then …

[photo by Boss Tweed via Flickr]

Five business travel factors for Obama and the midterm elections

Leisure travel is irrelevant during the election season, but the woes of business travelers seem to resonate. With the midterm contests two months away, all eyes are on the White House … and President Obama‘s success rate with road, rail and runway repair.

This is the one time business travelers make the presidential agenda, according to Portfolio.com: “Presidents (or people campaigning for any office) only talk about business-travel infrastructure during election season. Our issues almost never seem to rate presidential attention at any other time in the cycle.”

Well, let’s take a look at what Obama’s done for the white collar travel crowd. Here are five business traveler issues that could attract some attention in November:1. Secretary of Transportation appointed: With passengers’ rights considered and a solution implemented (and one that seems to be working), Ray LaHood seems to have been a savvy secretary. And, airlines have been slapped with some hefty fines, proving that they need to take responsibility for their actions.

2. Not so much at the TSA, though:
While Portfolio.com gives Obama high marks on behalf of business travelers for LaHood, it’s a little tougher on his choice for top dog of the TSA. The president waited a year to tap someone for the job, suffered through Senate procedural tricks and eventually had to go with his third nominee.

3. Security is solid:
The system is relatively safe, Portfolio.com opines, but expect some rancor over the body scans that are set to be implemented, as “the TSA is about to ratchet up the security kabuki at airport checkpoints.”

4. Travel consumer rights on the rise: It took 47 passengers getting stuck overnight on a Minnesota runway, but passengers finally got some rights. The airline industry warned of (self-servingly) of unintended consequences … which have yet to materialize. The Obama administration has airline fee structures on the agenda now.

5. Merger-mania managed: Despite the fact that the “balancing act is tricky,” the administration has done a decent job of facilitating healthy competition without impeding too much of the urge to merge.

[photo by jurvetson via Flickr]