Squeeze 6,000 travel professionals into a conference center and what you get--besides a big-league bar tab--is an accurate snapshot of their industry. The news that emerged from the Global Business Travel Association summit, held in Denver in August, was upbeat for airlines, hotels and anyone who owns their stock. Travel is up, and prices with it. That means small-business owners and their teams will need to spend even smarter in the coming months. Here are some ways to do it:
The 12 percent surge in hotel occupancy since last year is that sector's strongest rebound ever. New properties are in the pipeline, but most won't open until 2014, so demand will remain high. Smith Travel Network's Jan Freitag notes that with occupancies sitting at 70 percent, the average 50 percent figure for Sunday nights means that midweek (when most business travelers are on the go) "must be pretty rockin'."
Savings can be found by booking in advance as much as possible. You might not know who's going to next year's convention, so you can't buy a plane ticket, but you can reserve rooms and switch names later. And try to avoid New York City, which weighed in at nearly 80 percent occupancy and an average rate of $223 a night.
Airlines in the U.S. earned some $6 billion in ancillary fees in 2010, charging for everything from a first checked bag to trail mix to pillows. "They're here to stay," says US Airways CEO Doug Parker. What isn't, necessarily, is the selection of flights leaving your local airport. Airlines continue to trim schedules, eliminate unprofitable routes and downsize planes.
To avoid airline add-ons, it's imperative to attain elite status on your favored carrier. (In some cases, that's as easy as getting an affinity credit card.) For cheaper fares and a wider selection--or, in some cases, any selection at all--get accustomed to flying out of more distant airports on one or both ends of your journey, such as accessing Madison, Wis., via Milwaukee or Chicago. Since you're loading the car anyway, it may occasionally make sense to drive all the way to your final destination. At least you know your bags will travel free.
As auto sales rise, manufacturers aren't eager to sell to rental car companies at their usual discounted rates. Or they'll replace an order for small cars, a hot ticket now that gas prices are up, with harder-to-move SUVs. As a result, Hertz, Avis and the rest are holding on to their fleets longer than ever--up to 40,000 miles. And since older cars are more expensive to maintain, they're passing that cost to you.
The green light at the end of the tunnel is Enterprise, which bought National and Alamo in 2007 and has been integrating its customer service model. If one of their brands doesn't have a car in the category you selected, or if you're dissatisfied with the selection, employees are empowered to find options elsewhere in their fleet, the industry's largest, or to offer a pricier vehicle at the same price. That won't help your bottom line--but if you're going to pay $70 a day for a car, it might as well be a Lincoln.
The good news is that the health of the travel industry nearly always mimics that of the economy. So if the cost of travel is increasing, it could mean your business prospects are on the upswing, too.