Business travel spending in 2011 in Canada was worth $18.4 billion, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, part of a worldwide business travel industry worth $899 billion US. This year, it is predicted that the business road warriors will be on the move in a big way, as optimism has returned to the world of business travel for 2012.
DESPITE THE UNCERTAINTY of the debt crisis in Europe and the economic turmoil in the U.S. during an election year, early results from the Canadian Business Travel Outlook 2012 survey indicate the volume of business trips is likely to increase by 2.5 per cent this year. The survey is conducted by the Conference Board of Canada and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. The outlook for 2012 is a real boost for the industry. But hotels and airlines know that they can’t take anything for granted, because savvy business travellers will be shopping around.
The perfect out-of-office experience
Customer experience is paramount to all travellers, but especially important to those who have to work on flights and in hotels, and be fresh for business meetings.
“Business travellers go where they have to, not where they want to,” says Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada. Convenience, efficiency and service are priorities for those hectic days they spend on the road. Of chief importance to business travellers are location, staying connected (Internet), parking, well-equipped workspaces, meeting facilities if needed, and the ability to relax and recharge (pool, fitness centres, lounges and restaurants serving healthy food).
Hotels know they have to continually invest in their properties to maintain a leading edge with business travellers. For example, after a $1-billion global relaunch of its Holiday Inn brand in 2011, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) started a multi-year repositioning of its Crowne Plaza brand to refresh its look and standardize its upgraded amenities. Starwood Hotels & Resorts just renovated and tripled the size of its fitness centre at its Sheraton Montreal location, and added new fitness facilities at its Sheraton Hotel in Toronto. As an added touch, many Westin Hotels provide workout gear like running shoes, shorts and shirts so you don’t have to bring your own. Between uses, the clothing is laundered like the hotel sheets and towels, and the shoes get new inner soles.
Some hotels are making booking easier, particularly through mobile platforms. Six hotel companies (Choice Hotels International, Hilton Worldwide, Hyatt Hotels, Wyndham Hotel Group, Marriott International and InterContinental Hotels Group) launched Roomkey. com, an online hotel search engine, in January this year. Travellers can compare room options at different hotels, then book directly with the hotel they’ve chosen. Currently available to US travellers, it will expand to Canada, the UK and Australialater this year.
Airlines, too, must concentrate on attracting business clientele. Time spent en route is valuable time for business travellers, so Air Canada is improving its lounges, focusing on design, furniture and food. The airline recently refurbished its lounge at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport and opened the newest Maple Leaf Lounge at the new Winnipeg airport. And in flight, flat beds with comfy pillows and duvets are available in Executive First Suites on most of Air Canada’s European, Asian and South American itineraries.
Last-minute changes are inevitable in the world of business. Air Canada has increased flight frequency on major routes in Canada, added new frequency to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and continues to fly to cities on the radar of business travellers, like Rome, Athens, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Brussels and Geneva.
West Jet, too, has upped its frequency on a number of routes to appeal to busy business travellers; it has added new flights to New York’s LaGuardia airport and in the busy Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor. Codeshare arrangements with Cathay Pacific, JAL and KLM are connecting new global traffic to West Jet’s network.
Apart from the continuous improvements made by airlines and hotels, the innovation initiated by mobile technology has no doubt made business travel more convenient. Travellers armed with smartphones are using apps to change itineraries, rent a car, switch hotels or choose a restaurant, according to Scott Newell, senior director of Concur, a provider of integrated travel and management solutions. And as the younger generation gathers force in the workplace, the use of this technology is more or less expected.
But corporate security is a big concern. “Adoption of mobile apps is a challenge for travel managers. Travellers want them, but the security issues must be addressed,” says Lyell Farquharson, vice-president and general manager of business travel at American Express. “Many corporations don’t have clear policies in place, and it takes larger corporations time to approve them.”
To help corporations as they juggle travellers’ demand for mobile technology with security Concerns, travel management companies like American Express Global Business Travel and Carlson Wagonlit Travel Canada are creating apps that help travellers, but within a secure environment.
Carlson Wagonlit offers its travel management clients its CWT to Go, an app available on popular smartphone platforms. It provides secure access to all CWT-booked itineraries, flight updates and alerts, mobile check-in, and destination information. The company also offers CWT Market, a free application for iPhone and Android mobile devices that aggregates best-of-market travel apps and mobile websites into one mobile app.
Amex’s Mobile Communications Management (MCM) provides traveller tracking and integrated two-way messaging. In times of travel disruption, companies can locate travelling employees and offer direct assistance. MCM also helps travel managers anticipate problems: it continuously monitors and maps major travel disruptions, like weather systems, strikes and other events, to help with contingency planning before events take place. “Remember the (volcanic) ash cloud (from Iceland) last year? It stranded business travellers in many parts of Europe for weeks. Companies want to deal with situations like that without spending the entire budget for a year,” says Amex’s Farquharson.
A loyal traveller
The travel industry thrives on the business travel market, and loyalty programs have become a major retention mechanism. Their offers range from accommodation upgrades to VIP lounge access, and from priority check-in/checkout to exclusive concierge services.
Taking aim at elite business travellers, the Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty program includes 24-hour check-in, a personal Starwood ambassador who provides one-to-one service, and lifetime status.
Highlighted in The Winter 2011 edition of Navigate, a survey prepared by the Tourism Industry Association of Canada and Deloitte, highlights that blended travel–a combination of business travel with a personal vacation–is becoming more popular, as people look for ways to cut costs and make better use of their time away from home. Half (49 per cent) of business travellers say they have blended a business and personal trip, and they are more likely to travel with a companion.
As an Air Canada Elite member, “I really appreciate the lounge access, priority boarding and more leeway for luggage. It lets me fly to Europe with just carryon,” says Paul Donnini, vice-president and regional director (Americas) at Montreal-based Xylem Water Solutions. “The best use (of loyalty programs) is to make business travel more comfortable.” In addition, he has a number of hotel cards (Hilton, Best Western, Marriott, Starwood) because location, rather than brand, is the priority for him. While he has donated his frequent-flyer points to charity in the past, he redeems most points for air travel, usually for personal vacations with his wife.
Your best bet to ensure you get top value for your loyalty is to read the program details. There are inactivity rules (not staying the required number of nights at a hotel chain annually), and earned points can expire. But if keeping track of various plans, points and expiry dates seems a bit overwhelming, savvy travellers recommend mileage tracker websites like AwardWallet.com and GoMiles.com, which organize your points from various loyalty accounts in once place.
While hotels and airlines know that the customer experience is critical, they do, at times, fail to deliver. And during business travel, stress is more punctuated.
Emily Cobbs, a Toronto-based communications executive, redeemed airline points to take a blended trip (a combination of business travel with personal vacation) to Prague via Dusseldorf and Paris last year. She quickly ran into problems when the flight was delayed leaving Toronto. Despite assurances that the flight would still arrive in time for her connection, she missed her flight to Paris. She caught a later flight, but not in time to catch her flight to Prague. Since only a portion of her travel was booked on points and she had paid for the Paris-Prague ticket on another airline, the original airline was not obliged to help her rebook her flight. She had to pay upfront for another flight (although she was later reimbursed). And the final kicker: despite repeated assurances that her luggage would arrive in Prague, it had never left Toronto. “At every step of the way I was told a lie,” she says. “Be very aware of the difficulties in combining a redemption air ticket with a purchased ticket.”
Increasingly, business travellers are turning to social media to voice their complaints. Various sites provide a forum for discussions and advice, including Tripadvisor.com, Flyertalk.com and Businesstravellogue.com.
A recent post on TripAdvisor.ca makes this complaint about a loyalty program: “My biggest problem with the program is that they try to get out of upgrading you. The last two times I stayed (with a certain hotel chain), I was told that (there were) no upgrades available tonight, but they could upgrade me tomorrow if I wanted to move. I really feel it is their way of avoiding an upgrade. Who wants to change rooms after getting all settled in?”
One of the functions of the Canadian Transportation Agency is handling air travel complaints. In 2010-11, the agency received 527 such complaints, the majority of which were resolved through its informal resolution process. For efficiency, the agency encourages travellers to bring their complaint directly to the air carrier in writing before filing a complaint with them. For more information, visit www.cta.gc.ca/eng/air-disputes.
As forecasted by World Travel & Tourism Council, business travel spending in Canada will reach $28.2 billion by 2021. With all those people on the move, expectations for the perfect out-of-office experience will only rise. It will be interesting to see how innovations in technology, hotels and the airline industry will change the face of business travel.