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]

Europeans love online travel agencies, up 10% this year

London, England, EuropeIt looks like the internet is no longer a fad … at least not in Europe. Forecasts from travel market research firm PhoCusWright put 2010 growth in the European online travel industry at 10 percent, a smile-inducing turn from the 1 percent gain posted last year, not to mention 11 percent decline in 2009 for the entire European travel market (which is up only 2 percent this year, it appears).

This makes sense, given the data recently released by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which shows a hefty increase in travel to the United States from foreign markets.

“For travelers who may have been hesitant to book online, the recession provided the extra push they needed,” says Carroll Rheem, director, research at PhoCusWright. “Deal seekers turned to the Internet, and online travel agencies in particular, to find affordable options.”

The strength of the online travel agency sector was noted as a reason for last year’s resilience, according to a statement from PhoCusWright, “The buoyancy of the online market is due largely to the strength of the online travel agency channel, which grew in 2009, while supplier websites slipped.”

Rheem adds, “Hotel bookings are fueling online travel agency growth in Europe, with brands like Priceline‘s Booking.com maintaining extraordinarily high growth rates.” Further, it looks like online travel agency action is “on track for strong double-digit growth in 2010.”

[photo by Trodel via Flickr]

The travel market recovery in five simple stats

Is it time to celebrate yet? International visitation to the United States is one month shy of posting a year’s worth of monthly gains. More people are coming, and they’re opening their wallets. A travel recovery is in the works, and it’s being fueled with foreign cash – a net benefit for U.S. travel industry workers.

How can you tell we’re on the upswing? Well, take a look at the five facts below, thanks to the U.S. Department of Commerce:

1. Travel is up: visits to the United States from abroad are up 12 percent from the first eight months of 2009 to the first eight months of this year, marking the eleventh consecutive month of year-over-year increases. So far this year, 40.2 million international visitors have come to the United States.2. August was hot: forget about how red the thermometer got. Instead, wrap your head around the fact that 6.4 million people visited the United States that month, a gain of 11 percent from August 2009.

3. They are spending: early in the recovery, visits were growing, but spending wasn’t. This is changing. Over the first eight months of this year, visitors from outside the United States dropped $88.2 billion here, up 10 percent from the same period in 2009. In August alone, the eighth month in a row in which spending grew, they spent $11.5 billion, an increase of 15 percent from August 2009.

4. They’re coming from everywhere: 17 of the top 20 countries registered increases from the first eight months of 2009 to the first eight months of 2010, with only the United Kingdom, Ireland and Venezuela posting declines. And, there’s momentum: for the month of August, 18 of the top 20 countries posted year-over-year gains.

5. And to everywhere: the concentration of visits coming to the top three and top 15 ports of entry has fallen slightly, indicating a slight increase in variety. Still, 38 percent of visitors came through the top three ports of entry in the country – i.e., New York JFK, Miami and Los Angeles – with the top 15 accounting for 82 percent of visits.

[photo by borman818 via Flickr]

Business travelers want mobile, Expedia picks up Mobiata

I guess Expedia is watching the market. The online travel agency just snapped up mobile travel application developer Mobiata. Mobiata’s claim to fame is FlightTrack, and the other apps in its portfolio include TripDeck, HotelPal, FlightBoard and FareCompare. For Expedia, it was a no-brainer, as 4 percent of its traffic is coming from devices, a number the company would like to kick a bit higher, according to TechCrunch.

Beyond the fact that it gets more reach and better footing in the mobile space, Expedia’s Mobiata acquisition is interesting in light of a recent Deloitte survey. Business travelers are increasingly turning to their smartphones to research and book travel. The global professional services firm reported that 63 percent of business travelers earning more than $150,000 a year have web-enabled smartphones. Twenty-six percent of survey respondents, Deloitte said, have even downloaded hotel apps to these devices.

Given this trend in business travel, an important market for the travel industry, Expedia’s pickup makes good sense. The big question: who’s next?

[photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr]

Four signs that people are traveling again, starting with the road warriors

Business travelers are voicing their demands, and why should the airlines and hotels care? Well, this group of travelers is going back on the road, buoyed by all that corporate cash. According to travel industry research firm PhoCusWright, the U.S. travel agency/travel management company sector is set to surge 15 percent by the end of the year, compared to only 8 percent growth for the leisure/unmanaged business travel market. The business traveler is largely responsible for this rate of growth.

While the U.S. travel market as a whole is recovering, it’s the corporate travel folks who are leading the charge. “Corporate travel’s wild ride over the past two years has caused an unusual shift in trend, with online channels growing more slowly than the total U.S. travel market for the first time,” says Douglas Quinby, PhoCusWright senior director, research. The phenomenon reflects the peculiar dynamics of this recession, but the reversal will be short lived. “In 2011, the long-term arc of continued shift from offline to online channels will resume,” Quinby adds.

So, what can the travel business expect in 2011 and beyond? Take a look below to see four signs that the travel market is on the mend.
1. A big swing: in 2009, the U.S. travel market fell 15 percent, due largely to the effects of the financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent global recession. No business wants to spend money in those conditions. The economy may still be unpleasant, but companies are starting to put their capital to work again, and that includes investing in business travel to generate some revenue.

2. Half of the loss regained: the projected 2010 business travel market recovery means that half the spending lost from 2008 to 2009 is coming back. PhoCusWright forecasts a total U.S. travel market size of above $255 billion.

3. Growth trajectory: this year’s 10 percent overall growth rate isn’t going to get us back to 2006 levels this year, but the next two years will be positive. PhoCusWright says to look for record levels in 2012.

4. Online future: that sounds a bit obvious, right? Well, the numbers tell the whole story. Online travel agencies will beat the record levels they hit in 2008. The online leisure and unmanaged business travel sector fell only 5 percent last year, thanks to bargain-hunting. This year, the sector will remain stagnant, according to PhoCusWright, at 38 percent of the total U.S. travel market – I suspect this is because the small decline in 2009 sets a higher bar for recovery in 2010.

[photo by laverrue via Flickr]