Destination report: USA

US president Barack Obama has been seen across the news networks recently, talking up the economy. At a White House press briefing he cited six consecutive months of 200,000-plus job gains, telling journalists: “The economy grew at a strong pace in the spring. Companies are investing. Consumers are spending. American manufacturing, energy, technology, autos – all are booming.”

Obama’s “strong” spring refers to a recorded 4 per cent growth in Q2 this year – his many opponents, of course, prefer to point to a 2.1 per cent annualised drop in economic activity in Q1. But pundits and politicians aside, an overall upward trend appears to be reflected in US business travel.

The latest report on US business travel from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) anticipates a year-on-year rise of nearly 7 per cent spent on business travel in 2014, topping US$292 billion. This follows analysis of the GBTA’s first quarter stats, with trip volumes up 2.8 per cent year-on-year, and spend up 7.6 per cent to US$71.2 billion in Q1.

I meet with GBTA chief executive Mike McCormick on the vast expo floor of the Los Angeles Convention Centre. The GBTA’s annual convention is in full swing, the 400-plus stands bustling with delegates. He says a “sustained period of economic growth” in the US is having a visible effect. He points to Outlook report’s forecast of 8.6 per cent growth in group and meetings travel – higher than the overall figure of 6.8 per cent. “It is significant because that type of travel tends to be planned and budgeted further out,” he says. “Increases at the rate we’re seeing in the US reflects confidence.”

But, says McCormick, this growth brings challenges for buyers, when it’s accompanied by rising prices. The GBTA and travel management giant Carlson Wagonlit (CWT) have published price projections for 2015, forecasting US air travel up 2.5 per cent, slightly higher than the global average. The major factor here is consolidation of US airlines. “Nine airlines are now down to three, plus Southwest,” he says, referring to a decade of mergers, including United/Continental and American/US Airways.

Greg Treasure, president of HRG North America, agrees airline consolidation is a major challenge, as buyers can’t put deals in place with all the ‘big three’. “It puts far more complexity around deal structures,” he says. Add to this lack of spare capacity making it harder to get seats, never mind discounts. So what can buyers do? Work closely with expert consultants to analyse their travel patterns, hubs and destinations, says Treasure, to  “come up with deals that make sense, not one that looks good but doesn’t go where you want – a big issue in the domestic US market, because of the hubbing of various airlines and the capacity constraints we’ve been seeing”.

Shift in reward model

And there’s another development for buyers to keep an eye on, says Caroline Strachan, former senior travel buyer at Astrazeneca and now regional vice-president of global business consulting at American Express. She says a hot topic Stateside is the move by some airlines from a distance-based to a price-based loyalty points reward model in 2015. “This means the airlines will reward travellers based on how much they have paid for a flight, rather than how far they have flown,” she says. “This major shift in policy is prompting US companies to keep a closer eye on lowest-logical-airfare, to ensure that their travellers continue to make smart, compliant travel choices despite the change in reward scheme structures.”

However, she is also seeing a degree of loosening the purse strings as part of a more traveller-centric corporate attitude, with lower thresholds for flying in business class. Not everyone agrees: “I would say policy is getting tighter if anything,” says HRG’s Treasure. “I think airlines are trying to find a middle offering with premium economy products, and companies are exploring more mixed fare types.”

Greeley Koch is executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE). He also notes the rise traveller-centricity in corporate policy. “It is changing the role of the business travel manager in the US – and around the world. Driving this change is the acknowledgement that business travel is a major source of corporate revenue flow. Consequently, the role of the travel manager is evolving from that of an expense management watchdog to a business travel facilitator, whose purpose is to assist the traveller in meeting the corporate objective. That objective – increased sales and revenue – is beginning to supersede expense enforcement issues.”

Strachan points to another Stateside trend: “We are seeing companies using new ways to encourage lower T&E [travel and entertainment] spending. Several of our clients are introducing reward savings programmes – where travellers receive a percentage of the savings when spending less than the maximum daily per diems.

“Some clients have seen these schemes make a positive impact on reducing overall costs, but also an increase in policy compliance has been achieved as travellers look to book cost-effective, policy-approved options – where travel management company (TMC) negotiated deals include ancillaries such as breakfast and wifi.”

HRG’s Treasure is not so sure: “The US tends to be where the latest buzz starts – but whether it takes off or goes away is another matter. Gamification is another US buzzword, but you have to have the resources to administrate a scheme like that.” 

Creating difficulties

The CWT/GBTA price outlook also expected US hotel rates to rise 3.5 per cent, significantly higher than in Europe. McCormick tells me: “Here at the convention, buyers are starting negotiations for next year’s rate plans – and I’m hearing double digit increases in prices.”  This puts ‘leakage’ – travellers booking outside the programme or preferred channels – high on buyers’ agendas. One buyer defines leakage as bookings that fall outside data capture: this ‘blind spend’ creates difficulties when leveraging volume deals, plus gaps in pre-trip data that affect tracking and security, and opportunities to change behaviour.

Information management

Managing burgeoning data is a key theme at the convention. Halliburton travel buyer Trish Earles talks about tackling the “plethora” of report requests from stakeholders. She recommends a centralised gatekeeping system, and adds: “Take a moment to ask them what data they want, why they want it and how they’re intending to use it”, in the hope that the first version of a report will meet their needs. Meanwhile, Nicole Hackett, travel director at media group Graham Holdings advises buyers to be “proactive” in presenting data reports to senior management, rather than waiting for their requests.

Hand-in-hand with data is duty-of-care: buyers, TMCs and suppliers are citing it as a major issue in a country that’s seeing growing globalisation – businesses that have long been sustained by the vast US domestic market are increasingly looking beyond its borders. HRG’s Treasure says: “The only certainty in the world these days is uncertainty – look at recent airline incidents and the Ebola virus. Our clients need to ensure they’ve got the right tools and processes, pre-trip reporting and authorisation, to control where travellers are going and where they are. It’s paramount.” He adds: “There’s a move away from travel buying just in the US to more consolidated global programmes, and buyers need to understand local market nuances.”

McCormick agrees: “Every programme is global now, because you’re sending people out to all corners of the world to do business. With that comes the risk element and duty-of-care, it’s really at the forefront.”

On the topic of risk, HRG’s Treasure raises another concern. The US leads the way in online adoption – HRG’s latest figures show a 56 per cent online adoption rate for North America, well ahead of the global average of 42 per cent. “It’s great from client point of view – until we get things like weather disruptions,” says Treasure. “Last winter we had something like 16 major storms in the US, lots of cancelled flights.” At this point, when travel is impacted for 2-3 days, online tools can’t help stranded travellers – and service providers need to ensure they have the manpower to deal with unpredictable situations.

The US market tends to lead the way in business travel trends – so what’s likely to be driving change Stateside in the coming years? Last word goes to ACTE’s Koch. “Technology remains one of the most significant forces driving business travel industry change, now and in the future,” he says. “In years past, huge corporations dictated the direction of technology and business. Now, much smaller corporate entities, companies no larger than two or three people, are able to introduce products and services that cater to niche customers within the business travel sector. Many of these products start as ‘wish list’ conversations at travel industry events – and they can go from conception to market in a fraction of the time this used to take.”

Subscribe to the BBT Newsletter

Join the Buying Business Travel newsletter for the latest business travel news.

Thank you for signing up!