Today’s business traveller is cost-conscious, tech-savvy, and demands reliability, service and comfort. Patricia Moore has been looking at how the industry has been responding.
Kiwis are flying to do business in greater numbers than ever before – and it’s not just executives at the big corporates who have their passports at the ready; for the growing number of smaller enterprises exporting goods and services around the globe heading off-shore has become routine.
Technology, such as video conferencing, may offer alternatives for those face-to-face meetings, but it doesn’t guarantee the same results, particularly in the early stages of a business relationship.
The business traveller’s needs are simple – reliability, service, comfort and value. The ‘perks’ don’t go amiss either. Essentially he or she wants to get from A to B, as quickly, cost-effectively, and painlessly as possible. But, as many a weary road warrior will attest, things happen.
Travel today involves a delicate balancing act – traveller convenience versus security. Self-service processes now range from reservations to passenger and luggage check-ins, but lack of identity authentication in the check-in process is an ongoing issue. A recent report from technology company Unisys however, indicates passengers are prepared to sacrifice a level of privacy through the use of biometric-based identity checks, particularly if they are optional, in order to improve their airport experience.
Another recent study highlights a demand for more communication, information sharing and transparency from airports and airlines. According to ‘Navigating the Airport of Tomorrow’, a report by Amadeus and Travel Technology Consulting, your mobile phone may be the answer. Mobile technology could alleviate passenger frustrations caused by checking-in, collecting and dropping off baggage, and passing through security. Near-field-communication enabled smartphones and tablet computers will make one-touch check-in and mobile ticketing possible. RFID (radio frequency identification) technology will expand to create permanent baggage tags that recognise a frequent flyer’s details and allow real-time baggage information, and roaming agents with tablet computers will hasten the check-in process at peak times – but that’s all tomorrow.
Today’s traveller is faced with a number of choices even before putting a foot in the door at the airport. Deciding whether their journey’s really necessary, is a key consideration.
"It’s the cornerstone question for business, particularly in an era of cost-containment," says Grant Bevin, MD at Business World Travel. "However, when it comes to business relationships, our most resilient clients did not reduce the number of times they had ‘face-time’ with suppliers or clients overseas."
Bevan says because they’d negotiated some excellent airline and hotel deals, many of their business travellers were able to save thousands but still fly Business Class or Premium Economy. "We send travellers to international trade fairs, particularly world events in Germany, and we’ve noticed many travellers ensured attendance at these despite sales orders or purchase volumes being down. If they weren’t there, their competitors certainly were."
"Business travellers are cost conscious and will continue to be," says Simon McKearney, GM at Corporate Traveller. "Companies still need their people to travel for business but we’ve seen a shift in the way they’re travelling. Those that previously flew business class have moved to premium economy." They’re also looking for greater value for money.
"We work with companies to assess their travel then make recommendations and put travel policies in place. This ensures cost savings."
The GFC definitely had businesses looking at their overall travel spend and in some cases there was some shift by business travellers across cabin types, says Scott Carr, GM New Zealand sales at Air New Zealand. "However, given the quality of our Business Premier product, the change in demand was relatively minimal." He says Premium Economy has "proven itself to be a product that’s recession proof; which is why we now have 50 Premium Economy seats in our new 777-300 aircraft."
It’s a similar story at Emirates, where New Zealand manager Chris Lethbridge says there hasn’t been a wholesale shift to economy. "There were some who curbed their travel for a while but then they realised they still had to get on with business and started travelling again."
Then there’s the question of booking travel – do you DIY online or call on an experienced travel management company (TMC)? Or perhaps a little of both?
"There are two online worlds nowadays," says Bevin. "Most travel management companies have their own online booking sites for client companies." These allow travellers, or the company travel co-ordinator, to book any airline using a traveller’s personal profile with all their passport, frequent flyer and company cost-centre details automatically uploading, he says. Pre-trip approval is handled electronically as well.
"Our client companies love this and it’s a whole level ahead of the standard airline websites."
‘Direct’ websites for airlines, accommodation providers and services such as car hire, are another option, although Bevin says these don’t always suit business travellers.
"Airline websites, for example, require immediate payment, even if the booking involves a flexible airfare that doesn’t need to be ticketed straight away. We save our clients enormous amounts of money in airline re-booking and airline re-issue fees because we can be more flexible." He says paying a nominal booking fee to a TMC makes sense when they’ve saved you $100 to $200 on an airfare change.
"There’s a common misconception that booking online is cheaper," says McKearney. "However, when you add up the online booking fees and loaded margins, this is actually more expensive than using a TMC." Global buying (Corporate Traveller along with sister brand FCm has offices in 75 countries) means they’re able to secure the very best rates for their clients, he says.
Both Air New Zealand and Emirates report strong growth in online bookings. At Air New Zealand, Carr says this is particularly the case for smaller businesses that don’t have large volumes of travel. It’s also more likely to be for trans-Tasman travel, says Lethbridge. Longer, more complicated trips are more likely to be booked through a travel management company, he says. "We’re encouraging more people to book online by making our website increasingly user-friendly."
Bookings on the Jasons Travel Media site also continue to grow, although they don’t differentiate between business and leisure travellers, says marketing manager Lara Ortiz. "Online grew at a rate of 14 percent year on year the past two years and we expect a growth of 10 percent year on year until around 2015. People are getting more mobile and it’s important to go where they go."
Lack of round-the-clock support is frequently given as a reason not to book online – but ‘duty of care’ has grown immensely in terms of requirements and Emirates has seen a drop off in online direct bookings, says Lethbridge. "Events around the world, such as Japan and Christchurch, have highlighted the importance of duty of care. Booking through a TMC gives companies the reassurance that someone is working on their behalf when such issues arise and that there is a person at the end of the phone for them, no matter what time of day."
But booking direct online doesn’t necessarily mean you’re alone. Airline contact centres are there providing support. The Air New Zealand contact centre, for example, operates 365/24/7 and is available, usually via a toll-free number, for all customers, including those who have booked online, says Carr.
Travelling for business may have its hassles, but it also has its upside. "Emirates offers not only Skywards Miles through complimentary membership of Skywards, but also dedicated lounges at a number of busy airports around the world and chauffeur drive for premium passengers," says Lethbridge. Then throw in seats which convert to comfortable fully lie-flat beds, 1200 channels of information, communication and entertainment, the flexibility to text or phone while on board – and an extra 10kg of free baggage allowance, regardless of the class. He says the Auckland Emirates lounge will shortly be relocated and expanded to take 220 customers, seated. "Our lounges are renowned for offering the same superior cuisine and champagne as passengers get on board our flights."
The quality of their people, their service and their products keep business travellers going back to Air New Zealand, says Scott Carr. "Within that scope our Airpoints programme is definitely the kind of product that sets us apart. With one Airpoints dollar equal to one NZ$, people are clearly seeing the value of the programme." Airpoints membership has risen to almost a million – up 15 percent – in the past 12 months and Airpoints earned are up 20 percent as a result of new ways of earning them, he says.
"For many business travellers status points are the critical element of the programme which recognises their business with us by conferring additional benefits as status levels rise.
"These include lounge access, preferred seating, priority check-in and the like, all of which make the travel experience that much more enjoyable."
Taking care of business travel
PB Sea-Tow operates a fleet of international tugs and barges around New Zealand, off the coast of Australia and in the Pacific. At any one time they can have dozens of people in teams of six to ten, flying out or returning to New Zealand. To look after travel arrangements – flights and hotel bookings – they deal with Corporate Traveller in Tauranga, says operations superintendent Tyrone Power. "Lisa at Corporate Traveller has looked after us for years; she’s the best."
And they deliver on their 24/7 service promise, he says.
"They get calls at a lot of funny hours but they’re always there to pick up and deal with it." When changes need to be made and there’s no time to do it online, picking up the phone to a travel management company is way easier and more efficient, says Power.
Ninety-five percent of the company’s travel is to various Australian destinations and crews generally fly economy to the short east coast destinations.
"The price difference between economy and business class is just crazy. Hundreds of dollars extra for a few hours in the air – 100 percent of our bookings are economy," says Power. "If the distance is greater – such as the seven hours to Perth – then crew normally stay overnight in a hotel as part of the company’s fatigue management programme."
That said, Air New Zealand, their carrier of choice, is very good at looking after their frequent flyers, seating them in premium economy when possible, adds Power. The crew are welcome to use their frequent flyer points to upgrade if they choose.
"The connection between Air New Zealand and Virgin also assists with travel within Australia."
But if travel arrangements can become complicated, keeping track of staff is simple – as is the technology involved. "We have a big, very technically advanced whiteboard with all the names and dates on it. It might be ancient but it works."
Patricia Moore is an Auckland-based freelance writer.