Hidden cuts in business travel: what to look for

Business travel always comes with plenty of hassles, of course, whether it?s killer jet lag or crabby clients. But road warriors these days have a new foe to contend with: travel industry cutbacks.

While the down economy has provided vacationers with a host of new bargains, business travelers, already pressed by employers to tighten their belts, are discovering that the travel universe is becoming increasingly creative when it comes to cutting costs. And while some cutbacks are impossible to miss (have you flown lately?), others are subtler. At some hotels, for instance, once-standard perks like turndown service and 24-hour room service have gotten the ax.

And with companies trimming staff, expect a longer wait for rental-car pickup, check-in and more. At the same time, the industry is awash in new charges for former freebies like hotel amenities, including gyms and saunas.

And these shifts may be just the beginning. According to government data, the U.S. leisure and hospitality industry lost 28,000 jobs this January alone. LaSalle Hotel Properties, owner of Boston?s Westin Copley Place and 30 others, recently announced staffing cuts of 20 percent, while marquee brands like Starwood and Marriott have seen their stock prices plummet by more than 50 percent.
Car-rental companies, too, are paring down; Avis Budget Group, for one, has cut 2,200 positions and plans to reduce costs by at least $150 million over the next several months. And just in case anyone was harboring some hope for the airlines, the latest estimates project a $2.5 billion industry – wide loss – so don?t expect a return of in-flight snacks anytime soon.

We feel your pain, frequent fliers. So we took a little business trip of our own, shrunken expense account and all, to find out exactly where the industry cutbacks are irking travelers and where there might be unexpected benefits. Our itinerary included two prime destinations for the PowerPoint set: Chicago, one of the country?s biggest conference hubs, and Miami, which, well, just seemed like a pleasant place to do a little midwinter business.

Walking through the doors of New York?s John F. Kennedy Airport, we?re already bracing ourselves for the worst. After all, like most travelers, we?ve come to expect a charge for everything, including soda ($2 on US Airways) and pillows and blankets (now $7 on JetBlue). Even before hitting the security line, we?ve already forked over the corporate card twice, once for the $15 baggage fee and again for a $39 ?premium economy? upgrade still coach, but at least our knees won?t have indents in them at the end of the flight. The airlines have also cut their seating capacity to the lowest level since 1985, making it harder to find direct flights on many routes.

There may be an upside to these cuts, though our United flight actually arrived on time, and we may have more than decent weather to thank. With fewer planes clogging the skies and runways, says Joe Brancatelli, editor of business-travel site JoeSentMe.com, the overcrowding that triggered many prior delays seems to be improving. In fact, on-time arrivals for the past four months came in at 80 percent, four points higher than a year earlier.

Arriving in Chicago, it still looks like business as usual, as we spot convention groups ranging from plastic surgeons to evangelical ministers. But with room-occupancy rates down nearly 13 percent this January, well below the national average, the city?s hotels are feeling the pinch. To find out what really goes into running a hotel in a recession, we head to the Hotel Monaco, where general manager Nabil Moubayed shows us around the striped guest rooms and fire-lit lobby of his clubby property.

But with room-occupancy rates down nearly 5 percent in the first 10 months of 2008, well below the national average, the city?s hotels are feeling the pinch. To find out what really goes into running a hotel in a recession, we head to the Hotel Monaco, where general manager Nabil Moubayed shows us around the striped guest rooms and fire-lit lobby of his clubby property.

The biggest change here has been staffing, he says no surprise, since payroll is one of hoteliers? top three expenses. The Monaco has stopped filling open positions and uses existing employees to plug holes, like having the concierge cover the front desk when things get busy. It has also scaled back room-service personnel, now using just one employee to cover the graveyard shift. Finally, the hotel has dropped the position of housekeeping inspector, the person who ensures that each room is clean before a new guest arrives. Instead, housekeepers themselves now decide when their rooms are ready. ?When times are tight, you have to be creative,? says Moubayed. ?We wouldn?t survive otherwise.?

Though other hotels in the city are less forthcoming about how they?re reacting to the economy, we do see signs that the Monaco isn?t the only one making cutbacks. Checking into the Hyatt Regency Chicago, for instance, we notice the previous guest?s room-service dishes outside our door. Not so unusual except they?re still there when we check out the following morning.

The hotel says the incident ?was in no way a result of a reduction of staff,? but since our visit, it has cut employees. We also experience our share of increased nickel-and-diming, as when we discover the hotel?s latest addition, eight new computer terminals distributed throughout the property.
Though we?re pleased to be able to check e-mail without trekking three floors down to the business center, we should have known there would be a price in this case, $3.50 for five minutes and another 75 cents per printed page. General manager Patrick Donelly says the business center charges identical rates. ?These stations were intended to provide convenience to our guests,? he says.

Day three of our trip puts us in sunny Miami, an up-and-coming business destination, thanks to its three massive convention centers. We?ve rented a car (a Hyundai for $123 a day? Surprise! The rental-car industry has compensated for tough times by jacking up prices on popular gas-friendly models) to make our way to the luxe Loews Miami Beach Hotel, where we run into fellow traveler Paul Westbrook relaxing at the bar. The Dallas-based dental-lab manager isn?t worried about cutbacks, saying that he thinks hotel service has actually improved in recent months. At Loews, for example, the desk clerk offered him a beach-view upgrade without his even asking.

Actually, frequent travelers like Westbrook may be in the best position these days, as hotels increasingly work to hold on to loyalty-club members and other repeat guests.

Just looking around the sprawling hotel, with its pool concierge and six flashy restaurants, it?s hard to imagine that any expense has been spared.

But there are indications that the recession is making its mark. In the lobby many of the bouquets of fresh flowers have been swapped for longer-lasting plants, while the posh hotel boutique is in fire-sale mode, full of designer clothes marked down by 40 percent or more. Little shifts have happened in the guest rooms, too, with Loews now delivering newspapers by request only and restocking those tiny soaps and shampoos only after they?re used up. ?It?s not as wasteful, which I think people appreciate,? says a hotel spokesperson, explaining that the hotel is making an effort to be more eco-friendly. But when we try to squeeze in an evening workout, we find the gym closed an hour before its posted time. It turns out the facility has very recently scaled back operating times because, the hotel says, few guests used the gym after 7 p.m. But hey, at least we saved the extra $10 entry fee.

So how do you wrap up a four-night, two-city business trip? We can?t imagine a better choice than hitting the spa, especially since the nearby Conrad Miami hotel is running a $100 massage offer. But even there, under the magic hands of the masseuse, there?s no escaping the Dow. What do they call the special?

?Downtime in the Downturn.?


Copyright 2009 The New York Times Syndicate