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Business Travel

Luxury hotel chains, airlines: Business travelers wanted! And needed.

Jul 19, 2009

The drop in business and group travel because of the recession has dealt a body blow to airlines and hotels.

Part of that drop came after critics, including President Obama, lashed out at companies that rewarded executives with expensive junkets after accepting government bailout money.

At some airlines, business travel has fallen more than 20% this year. During the first two months of 2009, America's lodging industry reported losing more than $1 billion in revenue from canceled corporate meetings and events, according to the U.S. Travel Assn., a nationwide industry group.

And now airlines and hotels are fighting back with a slew of new campaigns to boost business travel.

Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. -- the hotel chain for the Mercedes-Benz crowd -- is launching a program Monday called Meetings Within Reach that rewards business travelers for staying in one of 72 Ritz-Carlton hotels around the world. Groups that book 10 rooms or more per night will get complimentary continental breakfast, meeting rooms, Internet, discounts on audio/visual supplies and select suite upgrades. Meetings must be booked by Sept. 31 and held by Dec. 31.

Such tactics are unusual for a luxury hotel chain, but these are not normal times.

"This is all for the short term," Ritz-Carlton Vice President Bruce Himelstein said. "We are just trying to keep our people working."

The rooms range from $159 to $229 per night, subject to availability.

Loews Hotels, the company that describes itself as offering "beyond four-diamond standards," is also making a play for business travelers.

Last week, the hotel chain launched the Flexible Meetings program that offers meeting planners a credit equal to 10% of the total room bill toward extra services at the hotel. Those bonuses include discounts on audio and visual equipment, airport transportation, food and beverages, suite upgrades and fitness center access, among other extras.

Meetings must be booked by Dec. 31 and held by Dec. 3, 2010.

Travel industry leaders have been fighting the perception that business travel is simply another term for company-funded vacations. Loews Hotels Chief Executive Jonathan Tisch joined several other industry leaders who met with Obama in March to stress the importance of travel and tourism to the U.S. economy.

Another business stung by the decline in business travel, British Airways, last week announced its own stimulus plan, called Face to Face.

Under the initiative, businesses across the country can win free flights from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to conduct face-to-face business meetings to anywhere the airline flies. To win, would-be travelers must write a 500-word essay about why their business merits an overseas trip. A panel of business leaders, including the British general consul in New York, Sir Alan Collins, will help judge the essays and select about 1,000 winners.

The winners of the essay contest will board one of three flights to London from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sept. 15, Los Angeles International Airport on Oct. 13 and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Nov. 17. Once the winners are in London, British Airways will pay to send them to their final destinations.

More miles for Down Under

Travelers who plan to visit Australia -- either for business or leisure -- can now earn airline mile credits on Virgin Atlantic Airways they can use to fly on V Australia, a sister airline and member of the Virgin empire created by British billionaire Richard Branson. V Australia and Virgin Atlantic teamed up on an agreement last week that allows passengers on one airline to earn mile bonuses for the loyalty program of the other airline.

Magic tricks up in the air

The tough economic times for the travel industry raise the question: How far will airlines go to attract new customers?

Asiana Airlines will go so far as to dress staff in pirate costumes to do magic tricks and origami for passengers.

Until Aug. 26, it will offer passengers on 52 flights a "variety of exuberantly themed services," the South Korean airline said.

On these flights, one of eight teams, including the "Magic" team, the "Charming" team and the "Tarot" team, will entertain passengers with magic tricks, tarot card readings, nail polishing and face painting. The onboard staff, dressed in pirate outfits, will also give passengers cocktails, moisturizing facial packs, origami lessons and fashion shows.

Ahoy and pass the peanuts!

Luxury hotel chains, airlines: Business travelers wanted! And needed.
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