Special Report: Business Travel

Special Report: Business Travel

The economic downturn means road warriors are being squeezed more than ever—do more, spend less. But it also means hotels and airlines are desperate for their business. Paula Szuchman reveals how you can turn the situation to your advantage

Business travelers have always had it rough. But over the past year, things have only gotten worse: cutbacks in airline and hotel service, pressure from employers to travel on the cheap, and, most irritating, security procedures and fare structures that seem to fluctuate daily. With the fall business travel season kicking into high gear, we've charted the most significant trends affecting business travelers, and provided strategies for navigating the changing terrain. Here's to happier trails.

Maximizing Coach Class

As companies continue to reduce budgets, these days few business travelers can book a seat in business or first class. Instead, more are buying discounted seats in advance and settling for coach.

Fortunately, not all coach is created equal. American Airlines set a new standard two years ago when it began adding three inches of legroom in coach, bringing seat pitch to 34 or 35 inches, depending on aircraft type. Its entire fleet has now been converted. The company has also installed power outlets for laptops on some coach seats on 82 percent of its fleet; ask for one when you reserve if you want to plug in.

Long-haul coach passengers on troubled US Airways might worry about the future of their miles, but they can console themselves by watching movies on demand at their coach seats. South African Airways, Lanchile, and Singapore Airlines are among the international carriers that also offer video-on-demand in coach. By the end of 2003, Cathay Pacific hopes to complete a fleetwide, cabinwide installation of in-seat power outlets and high-speed Internet ports.

Stateside, budget carrier Frontier Airlines has just signed with LiveTV, the same company jetblue uses to make satellite television available in every seat. Though their routes are not extensive, these all-coach, low-fare airlines are using such perks to entice business travelers: in a recent survey conducted by the Business Travel Coalition, nearly 70 percent of respondents said they plan to fly budget carriers more often this year.

Going After Upgrades

With more business travelers forced to fly coach, there's more competition for upgrades to the front. Fortunately, there are things you can do to maximize your chances.

Inside Flyer publisher Randy Petersen's Web site, mileagemanager.com, keeps track of your account information, automatically letting you know what you're eligible for and when. Webflyer.com ranks programs, based on its members' success rates in using miles. Its "weblink" feature updates you on frequent-flier promotions via e-mail.

According to Petersen, Northwest and Continental have two of the most agreeable programs for upgrades: both airlines automatically put elite-level passengers on standby upgrade, with a success rate of up to 75 percent.


The Best Upper Classes

Downturn or no downturn, plenty of business travelers will never settle for anything less than business or first class. And cash-strapped airlines are working hard to satisfy them. "We're competing for a smaller pool of frequent travelers," says American Airlines CEO Donald J. Carty, "and it's especially important to garner a bigger share of the market now so we can count on those customers later."

American is among several airlines that have revamped their upper classes: its new Boeing 777 first class has 16 sleeper seats that swivel when upright, so up to four passengers can convene for an on-board conference. Fully reclining seats, long a staple of first class, are now being added to business, a trend begun by British Airways two years ago. Qantas is installing them, and in June Singapore Airlines unveiled its SpaceBeds on some flights. At a length of six foot six, SpaceBeds set an industry record.

BA will also test high-speed Internet service in the upper classes of one 747-400 next February, and Lufthansa hopes to install the same technology on its entire long-range fleet by the end of 2003.

Of course, even in business class you can always look for a good deal. On Belgian carrier VG Airlines, launched in May, a round-trip business-class seat from JFK to Brussels costs just $2,200. And the food service includes such crowd-pleasers as lobster and filet mignon.

Flying Business Jets

Private planes don't come cheap. But with a multitude of airports to choose from and flexible schedules, chartering or buying a fraction of a business jet is an increasingly appealing option for business travelers.

There are some less expensive ways to get in on the action. With Air Royale International (airroyale.com), you can charter an entry-level Learjet for $1,700 an hour. The TravelCard from eBizJets (ebizjet.com) works like a debit card: you pre-pay—the minimum balance is $100,000—and the charges for your flying time are deducted; rates begin at $1,850 an hour for round-trip flights. Marquis Jet Partners (marquisjet.com) will sell you a prepaid lease for 25 hours on the planes of jet operator NetJets (netjets.com)—your cost is $109,000, compared with upwards of $400,000 for a one-sixteenth share (50 hours) on NetJets itself.

But abandoning commercial carriers isn't always necessary. Lufthansa recently launched all-business-jet service between Newark and Düsseldorf; a seat costs $5,813, the same as a regular business-class seat to Frankfurt, but with twice the exclusivity. The service is still being tested, and at press time there were not yet plans to introduce it on other routes.


Discovering Boutique Hotels

Fed up with impersonal service and less-than-inspiring design, business travelers are now heading to business-friendly boutique hotels, which, in turn, are doing more to cater to them. As industry pioneer Ian Schrager puts it, "If you don't have corporate customers, you're in trouble."

In fact, approximately 40 percent of Schrager's guests are traveling on business, and to better meet their needs, all Ian Schrager Hotels (ianschragerhotels.com)—among them, Morgans, the Royalton, the Paramount, and the Hudson in New York; the Mondrian in Los Angeles; and the Clift in San Francisco—are getting bigger desks. Business Centers will now have expanded hours and multilingual secretarial services. Even a frequent-guest program is on the way.

Other business-savvy boutique hotels include the five-month-old City Club Hotel (cityclubhotel.com) in New York, where in addition to luxe perks, such as plasma-screen TV's, you get free high-speed Internet access and soft drinks from the mini-bar. At André Balazs's stylish new Downtown L.A. Standard, guests have 14-foot-long desks with window views, free Internet access, a 24-hour gym and restaurant, and a tech-savvy staff trained in computer troubleshooting. And in guest rooms at Boston's discreet XV Beacon (xvbeacon.com), you can relax by your fireplace or get to work at the oversized desk with silent fax machine and cordless phone; at check-in, guests receive personalized business cards with a direct telephone and fax number.

Using Loyalty Programs

For years the hotel industry has been trying to duplicate the airlines' success with frequent-flier programs, but they couldn't quite generate the interest. Now, business travelers are finally recognizing the perks of joining and taking advantage of them.

Look for a chain you like with a program that works for you. Most, such as Hilton HHonors, are focused on free stays (a good way to cut costs for family vacations), though Hilton's "double dipping" policy—earning hotel points and airline miles simultaneously—is another key attraction. The 17 million members of the Marriott Rewards program have more than 300 awards to choose from, including free stays, and they also get special offers, such as one from this past spring: two nights and elite status for completing three separate stays.

Some chains emphasize extras instead. The Wyndham ByRequest program doesn't give free stays but offers such perks as complimentary local and long-distance calls, faxes, and high-speed Internet access. Elite members of the Fairmont President's Club get free wireless Internet access in the public spaces of the company's hotels.

Many of the luxury-brand leaders, including Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, don't have loyalty programs, but five-star travelers who want to rack up those points still have options: St. Regis and Luxury Collection (both part of Starwood's Preferred Guest program), Park Hyatt (Hyatt Gold Passport), Inter-Continental (part of Six Continents Priority Club Rewards), and Le Meridien.


The Art of Complaining

It's easy to forget, but hotels and airlines need you as much as you need them--especially in difficult economic times. If you're not happy, complain. "I'm much more aggressive than I used to be," says weekly traveler Kaye Salikof, a training consultant for Cleveland-based Management Recruiters International. "If I'm not absolutely delighted with my room, I insist on an upgrade--and I get it."

One tip: if, say, your room isn't made up when you return at the end of the day, don't call housekeeping--go straight to the general manager. A good one will apologize; a great one will make it up to you.

Bernie Yee, vice president of publishing for Hong Kong-based video-game company En-Tranz Entertainment, feels he's owed more than ever. On a recent United flight from Los Angeles to New York, Yee asked if he could buy an upgrade certificate. Although he was initially told there was space, the offer was later rescinded because he supposedly didn't have the proper certificate. He was ordered to return to his seat in coach. "When I got to JFK, I spoke with the customer service manager and was immediately given a free upgrade on a future flight," says Yee.

On another recent occasion, he demanded compensation from the Hyatt West Hollywood for giving him bad directions from the airport, and received an $80 valet parking voucher. "I'm definitely more demanding. Being on the road all the time is hard work. I deserve to be treated right."

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