The keynote speeches at the Global Business Travel Association's annual convention in July in Boston could hardly have carried more heft. A jaunty George W. Bush told attendees, "Our country does presidential travel right." Interesting, sure. But not much use for the rest of us.
Then Bill Clinton told a standing-room-only crowd that business travel is thriving despite the efficiencies of new communications tools because there are competitive advantages to seeing people face to face--but also because "it's fun." Really? Rewarding, perhaps, but from endless security waits to onerous baggage fees, aging rental-car fleets to increasingly crowded hotels, there's not much about planning or taking a typical business trip that's fun.
The words of yet another leader served as a cautionary reminder that most executives' experiences are a long way from Air Force One. "As a traveler, are you better off today than you were four years ago?" asked Brad Gerstner, founder and chairman of online hotel-booking service Room 77 and founder and CEO of Boston-based Altimeter Capital.
For most of us, the answer would likely be no. Still, not every aspect of business travel is gloomy. Consider: G3 Visas & Passports has instituted concierge service, removing some of the unpredictability from the frustrating process of obtaining necessary documentation for trips to India, China, Brazil and other countries. Several large airlines are adding economy-class flat-bed seats to make overnight trips easier. Some aging fleets--notably American Airlines'--are being swapped out for new, more comfortable fuel-efficient planes. There's good news on the security front as well: The TSA is working on overturning the ban on liquids in sealed containers, such as wine bottles.
And as I seem to note in this space every year, hotels just keep getting better. New brands, freshly built properties and chainwide overhauls have increased the choices for business travelers in nearly every domestic market. And, though occupancy rates are back up to pre-2008 levels, room rates aren't. Bargains are available for the smart shopper.
The common theme to the recent upgrades is customization. It isn't enough to trumpet thread counts, flat TVs and high-speed internet. A hotel needs to make each stay more comfortable--and, therefore, more productive--by addressing the needs of each particular guest.
The evolution of Spain's Tryp hotel chain, which Wyndham acquired in mid-2010, is an example of that customer focus. Only two of Tryp's 90 hotels are in North America (New York City and Quebec City), but the company is eyeing expansion. What Tryp offers is a "Plaza Central" lobby concept, modeled after a Mediterranean square, with tapas, free-flowing wine and a social gathering space where guests will actually want to spend time. At Tryp in Manhattan, guests can also visit an online chat room to interact with other guests and hotel executives. If you're wandering the Upper East Side and want a restaurant recommendation, wondering if anyone in the hotel has a line on Knicks tickets or can't understand why your omelet is taking so long, post a note and someone will respond.
Other long-standing American chains are also stepping things up. Over the past generation, workout equipment has become de rigueur; even bargain hotels now have fitness rooms. As a next step, Westin is providing workout gear as part of a joint venture with New Balance. Ten properties worldwide (including Boston and Maui) have been doing it on a trial basis since 2010, and by early next year every Westin will offer sneakers, T-shirts and shorts for a $5 fee--a boon for light-packing business travelers.
Throw in online advancements from companies such as Gerstner's, and the case can be made that business travel may not be more fun than it was during the last election cycle, but it's slowly getting more efficient. Even if you don't have access to Air Force One.
Making Travel Better
Sure, things aren't perfect. But these digital tools can help.
Take some of the stress out of flying. Hipmunk applies real-life metrics to flight booking by aggregating layover time, number of stops and other variables into its "agony" factor, displaying results on an easy-to-read timeline.
Snag that empty exit-row seat. The new Seat Alerts service from ExpertFlyer lets you know if a better choice has opened up on a flight you're booked on (according to your preset priorities), enabling you to grab it before someone else does.
See the view before you book your room. Brad Gerstner, founder of Room 77, kept ending up with bad rooms when he reserved hotels online. His service doesn't just let you search and book at discount prices; it also offers a simulated Google Earth feed from each room to help you avoid another view of the parking lot.
Keep tabs on your awards-program balances. Install the AwardWallet app on your smartphone and track the accumulation of miles and points in one place. It alerts you when totals are updated and e-mails reminders about upcoming hotel stays and flights.