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Business owners travel differently than employees on business trips. They pay for their travel expenses out of their own pockets, with no generous corporate expense accounts to fall back on.
The bad news for you business owners: Business travel costs rose to record levels last year. In a recent survey, American Express found that travel and entertainment expenses were the "third-largest controllable expense" for its mostly Fortune 500 client base. But for small companies with aspirations to grow, travel and entertainment is probably the largest controllable expense.
The good news is the word "controllable." Even in times of rising rates, there are still ways you can cut travel costs. That's why our annual Business Travel Awards are devoted to recognizing the suppliers that cater to entrepreneurial travelers--those who seek value and economy over cushy comforts and status symbols. Our 4th Annual Business Travel Awards are not an official ranking or a formal survey but simply a recognition of those companies that consistently offer entrepreneurs an affordable option to overpriced travel.
Best Domestic Low-Fare/Upstart Airline: Western Pacific Airlines
Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Western Pacific earns our praise this year for offering business travelers an inexpensive transcontinental travel option. Major carriers may offer more trips between major East and West Coast cities, but they're often unaffordable. Western Pacific, however, offers one-stop service at prices that make a cross-country trip a possibility, not a nightmare.
Major airlines' fares for midweek travel typically run in the $1,000-plus range. However, WestPac (as it is known to loyalists) offers fares in the more manageable under-$400 range. Best of all, it allows business travelers to have a life by not requiring that dreaded Saturday-night stayover to get a reasonable fare. The downside: All flights stop over in Colorado Springs, and there are no in-flight meals.
Major West Coast cities served are Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix, and Portland, Oregon; major East Coast cities are Newark, New Jersey; Washington, DC; Atlanta; and Miami and Orlando, Florida.
Visit Western Pacific's Web site at (http://www.westpac.com), or for reservations, call (800) 930-3030.
Best Trans-Atlantic Business Class: Continental BusinessFirst
Although many major airlines flying across the Atlantic claim to offer a hybrid product--meaning a combination of first- and business-class comforts and amenities--Continental's BusinessFirst product still stands alone. The difference is in the seat--a huge sleeper with a whopping 55 inches of legroom, far more than what other airlines offer. (The BusinessFirst cabin topped the charts in a Consumer Reports comfort ranking last summer.)
Continental's BusinessFirst still offers the same basics that have kept it our fave for the past four years--the giant seat with electronically controlled lumbar support and footrest, plus an extensive menu of options on the in-seat video system. As other airlines watch passengers defect to BusinessFirst cabins, they have made moves to upgrade their creature comforts. But Continental has continued to tweak its product to stay ahead of the competition: It now offers "cookie jar service," allowing BusinessFirst passengers access to a snack bar during flights. Arrival lounges in Frankfurt, Germany, and London and Manchester, England, offer hot showers.
Continental's proposed (as of press time) alliance with Virgin Atlantic Airways will increase the airline's international presence by making London's Heathrow Airport more accessible. In the meantime, BusinessFirst is available from Newark, New Jersey, and Houston to cities in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal.
Visit Continental's Web site at (http://www.flycontinental.com), or for reservations, call (800) 525-0280.
Best Trans-Atlantic Coach Class: Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy
Virgin Atlantic earns our kudos for the second year in a row because other airlines' economy cabins are still, for the most part, unimaginative sardine cans. Most Europe-bound business travelers cannot take advantage of the deep discounts offered to vacationers. Virgin's Premium Economy section was developed with the idea that those paying full economy fares (which are usually at least twice as much as vacationers' excursion fares) should get full frills. Travelers in this section will find a separate cabin with fewer seats per row, more legroom and wider seats.
But even if you are at the back of the plane (regular economy) with Virgin, you still get service you won't find on other airlines. Each economy seat has a personal video screen offering a wide array of movies, news, documentaries and games--plus free drinks, ice cream and an amenity kit with more goodies than you'll get in other airlines' business classes.
Call (800) 862-8621 or visit Virgin's Web site at (http://www.fly.virgin.comatlantic/).
Best Trans-Pacific Business Class: Cathay Pacific Airways
Facing stiff competition from other Asian airlines, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific regularly takes honors for best business-class service on those interminable trans-Pacific flights. Its amenities include new, larger seats with personal entertainment systems that offer eight channels of bilingual entertainment. In-flight phones are located away from seats for privacy, and flight attendants can send and receive faxes for passengers.
The most striking feature of Cathay's business class is the service--a virtual army of flight attendants offers personal touches that are difficult to duplicate. And U.S.-based travelers earn points with American Airlines' AAdvantage program.
If Hong Kong is only a stopover for you, you'll find connections at Cathay's Hong Kong hub punctual and plentiful. One unique feature of Cathay is its highly touted Web site, Cyber Traveler, which occasionally auctions seats for cash or to those with big banks of frequent flier miles. And in a move especially pleasing to East Coast travelers, Cathay recently launched direct service from New York City's JFK to Hong Kong, with only a quick stop in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Visit Cathay's Web site at (http://www.cathay-usa.com), or for reservations, call (800) 233-ASIA.
Best Airport: Chicago Midway
Were it not for Midway Airport, air fares in and out of the Windy City would be out of reach for many entrepreneurs in Chicagoland. Low-fare carriers such as Southwest, Kiwi, ValuJet and Vanguard make their Chicago stops here.
Business travelers find Midway appealing not only because of its lower fares but also because of its central location and accessibility. Now that the airport has its own CTA or "L" transit stop, with Orange Line trains running to the downtown area 10 miles away, it's surprising more business travelers don't opt for this smaller, friendlier and less hectic cousin of giant O'Hare International Airport 15 miles to the north.
In its 50-year history, Midway has gone from being the world's busiest airport to a near-shuttered facility in the 1970s. Now it's a thriving airport that serves 9 million passengers a year. Fourteen airlines serve almost 60 cities with direct or nonstop flights from Midway--most of them on low-fare carriers. And last year, the city of Chicago and Southwest Airlines teamed up on a six-year redevelopment plan that will replace the aging terminal and roadways.
Best Budget Hotel Chain: Budgetel Inns
Budgetel has won our praise before. This time around, we recognize it for its attention to budget-conscious business travelers. Budgetel just invested $2.5 million to equip 10 percent of its rooms chainwide with BusinessFirst amenities--the first economy hotel chain to do so. BusinessFirst rooms come with in-room office conveniences typically offered only by higher-priced hotel chains, such as extra-large desks with ergonomic chairs, task lighting, speakerphones with modem hookups, trays of free office supplies such as Post-it notes and pens, and free copying services and incoming faxes. Other room features include king-sized beds, recliners, in-room coffee makers, 25-inch color televisions with remote, and free local calls. You'll even find a free continental breakfast hanging on your room door each morning!
Known for their commitment to safety, Budgetel locations feature interior corridors, which are more secure than exterior ones. Guests can enter the hotel via side doors and only with a room key. All doors except the front one to the lobby remain locked at all times.
Amazingly, rates for Budgetel's BusinessFirst rooms run just $50 or less on average, which is only slightly above Budgetel's regular rate. There are 135 Budgetels in 28 states (most east of the Mississippi). Ask for a BusinessFirst room when making your reservation or when you check in.
For reservations, call (800) 4-BUDGET or visit Budgetel's Web site at (http://www.budgetel.com).
Best Moderately Priced Hotel Chain: Courtyard By Marriott
If you are looking for a consistently good value, it's hard to miss the near-ubiquitous Courtyard by Marriott chain. Since 1983, the chain has grown to 300 hotels in the United States and 10 in Great Britain.
Courtyard hotels resemble residential apartment complexes in their landscaping and architecture. Most rooms overlook a central, landscaped courtyard with a pool and socializing area. There are also a few high-rise Courtyard properties in some urban areas.
Courtyard offers king-sized beds in 70 percent of all guest rooms, large work areas with ergonomic chairs, phones with modem hookups, and a separate eating area with free coffee and tea. Soon, all rooms will offer phones with two lines and voice mail. Most locations have a swimming pool, a minigym and an indoor whirlpool, plus a lobby restaurant offering a daily breakfast buffet.
With the giant buying power of a worldwide chain, Courtyard can pass along a consistently competitive rate in almost every location--about $60 to $90 per night.
For reservations, call (800) 321-2211 or visit Marriott's Web site at (http://www.marriott/courtyard.com).
Best Luxury Hotel Chain: Four Seasons/ Regent Hotels
When an entrepreneur has "made it" and feels he or she deserves a little pampering on the road, Four Seasons/ Regent Hotels, the world's largest luxury hotel chain, is there to fit the bill. Now that the center of the universe seems tilted toward Asia, these predominantly Pacific Rim hotels are located in cities where entrepreneurs will most likely find themselves in coming years. Four Seasons/Regent consistently earns more prestigious awards than any other hotel company, firmly establishing its two brands, Four Seasons and Regent, as standards for top-quality service and location.
Regent Hotels started as a single Hong Kong location in 1972 and quickly grew to be one of the best hotels in Asia. Over the next two decades, the Regent name and reputation spread throughout Asia. In 1992, Regent was purchased by Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels (winner of Entrepreneur's Business Travel Award for best luxury hotel chain in 1993).
The Four Seasons/Regent chain now operates 37 hotels and resorts, from the business-traveler leaders such as the Regent Hong Kong or Four Seasons New York to exotic spalike getaways in Nevis, West Indies, or Bali, Indonesia.
Visit Four Seasons/Regent's Web site at (http://www.fshr.com), or for reservations, call (800) 332-3442.
Best Hotel Value, New York City: The Gotham Hospitality Group
Gotham Hospitality started offering value-conscious business travelers a trendy alternative when it rescued the timeworn Hotel Wales on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Since then, entrepreneur Bernard Goldberg has added four more previously blighted structures to his chain of business-traveler-friendly hotels.
With each addition to the group--from The Franklin (also on the Upper East Side) to The Shoreham and The Mansfield, both off Fifth Avenue, and most recently, The Roger Williams on lower Madison Avenue--Gotham Hospitality has become better known among the value-conscious. But don't think good value means shabby. This group of small hotels creates a highbrow mind-set, thanks to public spaces featuring museum-quality furniture, original art, and complimentary breakfasts and late-night desserts.
Rates run from about $100 at The Roger Williams up to $250 for suites at The Shoreham. Best of all, there are no extra charges--no minibars to tempt you and no room service (however, all the hotels have popular restaurants). Instead, you'll get complimentary fresh flowers, Neutrogena bath products, and occasional live music performances in the lobby.
To get the best rate at a Gotham Hospitality property, book through hotel consolidator Quikbook at (800) 789-9887.
Best Hotel Value, Los Angeles: Summit Bel-Air & Summit Rodeo Drive
Location is key with business travelers visiting the sprawling Los Angeles area. Unfortunately, the most centrally located hotels in town are also the most expensive. Good news: Hidden among the plush hostelries of Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles are two casually elegant bargains, the Summit Bel-Air and the Summit Rodeo Drive.
Whichever hotel you choose, the facilities of both are at your disposal, including award-winning restaurants, heated pools, and two-line phones with voice mail and modem hookups. They also offer facilities for small meetings. If you stay at the Summit Rodeo, you get free transportation to the Summit Bel-Air to enjoy its garden atmosphere and tennis or spa treatments. Surprisingly, rates at both hotels are in the $150 range--a true bargain for a convenient and elegant Beverly Hills address. (Limo service is available to and from Los Angeles International Airport for $68 round trip, including tip.)
For reservations, call (800) HOTEL-411.
Best Car Rental Service: Thrifty Rent-A-Car System
It's hard to beat the deal Thrifty offers budget-minded business travelers--its rates are almost always lower than those of larger car rental agencies, it has tons of airport locations, and it offers new Chrysler cars. Since 1995, Thrifty and Western Pacific Airlines (see page 123) have had an alliance that includes special car rental rates and parking discounts for WestPac customers.
Thrifty has more than 1,100 locations worldwide at both airport and nonairport sites. The company has also capitalized on the parking squeeze at most major airports by opening its car rental lots to airport parking.
Visit Thrifty's Web site at (http://www.thrifty.com), or for reservations, call (800) FOR-CARS.
Best Business Travel Web Site: TheTrip.com
There are a lot of travel-oriented Web sites out there, but there's only one that caters exclusively to the independent business traveler. Find it at (http://www.thetrip.com). Backed by telecommunications firm US West, this site helps you plan trips, make reservations, get airline tickets, and obtain news and information to make your business trips more productive and less expensive.
Realizing that many travelers must stay over Saturday nights to get cheap air fares, the site offers news and advice that will make you want to stay over--not just to save money but to have a great time.
Summit Bel-Air, 11461 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90049;
Summit Rodeo Drive, 360 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210;
Thrify Rent-A-Car System Inc., 5330 E. 31st St., #102, Tulsa, OK 74153-0250.