(*This is a story we wrote for NBC News online.)
Business travel is back. The benefits of being a business traveler are not.
After two years of virtual meetings and remote work, “companies are getting back to doing interviews in person, and even conferences and conventions are coming back in full force,” said Nina Herold, the general manager of TripActions, a travel management firm. Sales teams are hitting the road, and employees are starting to return to headquarters for team building, recognition events, and orientation, she said.
The industry isn’t at pre-pandemic levels yet, and a recent study from Deloitte, a multinational accounting and consulting firm, predicts business travel overall won’t fully return to 2019 levels for at least a couple more years.
When the perks of being a business traveler will return to pre-pandemic levels, however, is anybody’s guess.
“I don’t have any other words to describe business travel right now other than frustrating and inconvenient,” said Ashley Davidson, a public relations consultant in Alexandria,Virginia.
For years, she flew nonstop between Washington, D.C., and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where her company is located. Now, due to airline route cuts, she has to make a stop in Charlotte, North Carolina, and ticket prices are up 34 percent over 2019. “I’ve had to forgo my strategy of sticking to one airline and have been booking whatever flight gets me to where I need to be on time and for the best price.”
Flying multiple carriers makes it harder to amass the hundreds of thousands of miles needed to reach elite flyer status and all the benefits that come with it, including upgrades to business or first-class seats, free checked bags and airline lounge access, and private car service between connecting flights.
“Elite status has been extended at some airlines, ” said travel expert Gary Leff, author of ViewfromTheWing.com. “But some people are starting from zero.” To help flyers regain their VIP status, he says, some airlines are offering bonuses and boosters that award extra points or miles for flights, and in a recent change, some are treating routine credit card purchases the same as miles.
But even for those who’ve held onto their elite status, the boom in air travel combined with fewer flights overall can mean “it can be hard to get seats at the last minute and harder to get first class seats,” Leff said. Those who do snag a seat may find that first- and business-class food and other amenities haven’t been restored to their pre-pandemic luxury.
At many airports, for instance, some club lounges are still closed and the open ones are packed. Frequent business travelers who are used to striding past gate hold rooms and directly to the airline club lounge for free food, drinks, desk space, and places to nap or shower, may struggle to find a place to sit down or be turned away altogether.
“Leisure travel is higher than pre-pandemic times and more people are upgrading to first-class tickets and paying for airline club access,” says Mike Daher, vice-chair of transportation, hospitality, and services for the U.S., at Deloitte. Many high-fee travel credit cards also come with admission to airport lounges.
Once at your destination, “good luck finding a rental car,” says travel expert Henry Harteveldt of the travel analytics firm Atmosphere Research. “And when you do, don’t be surprised if the cost is equal to your mortgage.”
With record numbers of leisure travelers making up for lost time, hotel demand is way up, too. But due to labor shortages, rates have soared and reservations can be harder to come by, he said. “In some cases, hotels are not making all their rooms available because they don’t have enough staff to clean them.”
In addition, many hotels have not reopened their concierge levels, and have limited hours for restaurants and bars. Frequent guests accustomed to getting free full breakfast, may instead be offered a credit that barely covers the bill for eggs, coffee and a croissant in the hotel restaurant.
Ryan Chitwood, a forest products wholesaler from Annapolis, Maryland, recently sent a sales team to an annual trade show, where meetings were scheduled back to back in a hotel restaurant throughout the day. “Our tight schedule was derailed because what should have been brief breakfasts and lunches ran way over because of staffing shortages,” he said. “Also, when you arrive late and want to check in and grab a burger at the bar or via room service and it’s not available, you either need to leave the property — or just go hungry.”
“For a business traveler, it’s an unknown and it’s not consistent by hotel brand, but rather property by property,” Daher said.
With virtual meetings an ever-present option, unhappy business travelers, who typically pay full fare, could cost the industry as it tries to bounce back. Before the pandemic, business travel made up 20 percent of trip volume, but accounted for 40-60 percent of all lodging, rental car and airline revenue in the U.S., according to the U.S. Travel Association.
“The airlines and hotels understand the value of these loyalty relationships,” Daher said. “They have armies of people analyzing that and they’re not going to let those relationships go.”
Business travelers seeking workarounds to inconsistent hotel services may not get much help from their corporate travel programs. Deloitte’s study found that only 1 in 10 companies include nontraditional lodging, such as Airbnb, in their corporate booking tools, and only half reimburse employees for the charges.
Employees who relocated during the pandemic, and want or need to reconnect with colleagues at headquarters, may also find themselves paying their own way. Nearly one-third of companies are requiring employees to shoulder the cost themselves
These and many of the other current pain points of business travel should ease, eventually, Harteveldt said, but for now “it’s a very tough, very complicated, very stressful, and very expensive landscape that is welcoming business travelers back in the summer of 2022.”