Fleet News

Guest opinion: Virtual alternatives for business travel

Employers are increasingly beginning to appreciate the benefits of video and web conferencing, and that may be taking its toll on the travel industry: Betty Low, editor Business Travel World.

Statistics and lies – they easily go together in many of our minds. After all, can't the results of most surveys be manipulated to prove the point you want to make? What gets more interesting is when surveys look at the same market and reach contradictory conclusions. And surveys are telling different stories about the state of business travel at the moment.

Company Barclaycard has just published a survey of UK business travellers saying that they're travelling more this year than last. On the other hand, if you pay heed to UK agents, whether travel or hotel booking, you will be told that the figures say the market is not moving – sluggish if we're being polite, depressed if we're being harsh. Hotel figures show occupancy marginally up in hotels but the rate constant, still way down from the heady days of the late 90s. Hoteliers, of course, hope that high occupancy will put such pressure on supply that rates will respond and start climbing again.

There is an old wisdom in the hotel business that cycles are seven years long – that occupancy and price peak, then fall, then plateau, before climbing again back to a peak. But within that, there are variations both within and across markets. The US, for example, is the only market in the world in which the hotel market seems to be depressed. Why should the economic giant be going against the flow, as it were?

Simon Cooper, head of commercial for Ritz-Carlton, says more and more business travel is being done in a day rather than overnight – with reasons ranging from the airlines' abandonment of a mandatory Saturday night stay for cheaper fares to shorter trips because the political climate means people are reluctant to be away from home. John Wallis, vice-president marketing for Hyatt, attributes the sluggish American market to the confused and murky visa situation that is resulting in people avoiding travel to the States if possible.

Probably another reason for the sluggishness of the travel market despite depressed prices is the increasing sophistication and availability of electronic substitutes such as video and web conferencing. Not long ago, many in the industry (the author of this column included!) dismissed ideas that virtual meetings could take the place of face-to-face meetings. But a couple of things have happened – technology has got a lot, lot better. And we've got more used to it – every year, the numbers in work who are completely computer literate increase while the number of technophobes decreases. Finally, we're all having to work smarter and practise very prudent time management. Head counts are dropping but service delivery expectations are not.

For relationship building and more general exploratory missions, nothing will ever replace the face-to-face meeting and travel but for set agenda meetings with known participants, the alternatives are there. And although virtual, they are real.

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