business travel

Anti-abortion & anti-LBGTQ laws are complicating business travel

(This is an abbreviated version of a story we reported for NBC News)

First came COVID. Now abortion bans and anti-LGBTQ laws are complicating business travel.

Business travel is clawing its way back to 2019 levels as COVID-19 concerns largely recede. But as tighter abortion restrictions and anti-LGBTQ laws proliferate, some employers and event organizers are weighing a new set of threats to employees’ safety outside the office.

Dozens of states have slashed abortion access since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and more than 180 bills restricting LGBTQ rights are advancing in statehouses nationwide. Many such moves have drawn criticism on political and civil rights grounds, with companies and event organizers threatening state boycotts akin to the one that led North Carolina to scrap its 2016 anti-transgender bathroom law.

But lately, conservative “anti-woke” messaging has made many companies more hesitant to publicly ally themselves with progressive causes. Some are now taking a quieter approach to mitigating risks, business travel planners and human resources experts say.

“We think critically about who we are sending where and ask employees if they’re comfortable going to a state that has demonstrated they are not inclusive towards people with certain identities,” said Cierra Gross, CEO of Caged Bird HR, a consultancy firm. “We could be putting someone’s physical and psychological safety on the line in some of these states.”

While civil rights groups (and the Canadian government) have issued advisories warning of risks from the legislation, some travel industry groups and local advocates have pushed back against boycotts, arguing they hurt hospitality workers and minority business owners and rarely change policies.

In fact, last month, California lawmakers voted to repeal a ban on state workers using public funds to travel to 26 states with anti-LGBTQ policies, replacing it with a public awareness campaign.

In an April survey, the expense platform SAP Concur found that 82% of LGBTQ+ business travelers had changed accommodations at least once in the past 12 months because they felt unsafe, compared with 70% of U.S. business travelers overall and 53% of those globally.

For many workers, these concerns are nothing new — many have long had to be extra mindful of their safety with little to no employer support. For companies and travel managers, though, there’s now a growing “sense of importance and urgency” to revisit their policies, said Charlie Sultan, president of Concur Travel.

The last time that happened on a broad scale was when COVID-19 hit, pushing businesses to review the policies supporting what’s known as their “duty of care” to keep employees safe on the job.

While most businesses now have protocols to handle COVID-19 exposures, some are just starting to wrestle with other scenarios: What if a pregnant employee has a medical emergency while traveling in an anti-abortion state? Or if trans employee faces a confrontation someplace without public accommodation protections for gender identity?

Lauren Winans, CEO of Next Level Benefits, an HR consultancy firm, said some of her corporate clients have started maintaining lists of potentially problematic destinations for workers to visit. Others are adopting no-retaliation policies “that allow employees to express concerns, establish boundaries or refuse travel” to certain areas, she said.

The construction bidding platform PlanHub is “thoroughly assessing potential risks tied to the legal and political landscape in various regions,” said Kimberly Rogan, the company’s chief of staff and head of people operations. “We’ve refined our guidelines to inform employees about these factors better and to provide clear instructions on how to navigate them.”

These efforts coincide with a broader post-pandemic focus on mental and physical health and safety, said Daniel Beauchamp, head of global business consulting for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at American Express Global Business Travel.

As those concerns become the “front and center of corporate consciousness,” some U.S. and international employers are taking “a more nuanced” approach to their duty of care, he said.

But HR professionals say few of the businesses taking these steps are broadcasting them publicly, and the shift is far from universal.

Certain areas say they’re seeing pullback due to the new laws even as business travel rebounds.

Between May — the month Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded what critics termed a “Don’t Say Gay” law — and mid-September, more than 17 groups cited “current Florida politics” and safety as reasons for not booking conventions in Greater Fort Lauderdale and Broward County, despite a local reputation for inclusiveness, according to the Visit Lauderdale tourism group.

That list includes the National Sales Network, the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, the University of Southern Mississippi and others, said Visit Lauderdale CEO Stacy Ritter. She estimated the community has lost out on more than $98 million in revenue.

“This is not an economic issue where you can offer a group more money to help underwrite their conference,” said Ritter. If people feel unwelcome in the state, she said, “there’s very little you can do.”

Travel on the rebound? Bookings say yes.

[This is a slightly different version of the story we prepared for NBC News]

As the pace of Covid-19 vaccinations is ramping up, so is consumer confidence — and with it, a surge in travel bookings.

“Many travelers are feeling optimistic that they will be able to vacation abroad this year. Many people are already actively planning their next big trip; even for trips more than four months out,” said Shibani Walia, senior research analyst at Tripadvisor.

2020 was the worst year in history for air travel demand, according to the International Air Transport Association, with global passenger traffic falling more than 65 percent, compared to 2019. The hotel industry also tanked, surpassing 1 billion unsold room nights, according to hotel industry research firm STR. The story was much the same for cruises, attractions, and tours, with the World Tourism Organization calling 2020 the worst year on record.

Pent up demand fuel bookings

With a comprehensive vaccine schedule and pent-up demand for leaving home, vacation planning and bookings are on the rise for late 2021, 2022, and beyond.

Spirit Airlines announced Thursday it would start training new pilots and flight attendants as of next month, in preparation for a spike in leisure travel.

“We just got our first shot. So maybe we could plan a trip this summer or later this year,” says Vicky Stein of New York. “I’d love to visit my son in Vancouver, B.C. But that depends on the regulations in Canada. At this point, I’d be happy to go to Vermont.”

A recent Tripadvisor survey found that 80 percent of U.S. consumers planned to take at least one overnight domestic leisure trip in 2021. Just over one-third of respondents planning at least three domestic trips this year. Popular destinations such as Orlando are already seeing a hopeful booking rebound.

“The region expects 2021 spring break travel to mirror the Christmas and New Year holidays, when occupancy reached 50 percent,” said Daryl Cronk, senior director of market research for Visit Orlando. “This would be a significant improvement over last year’s 12 percent, one of the lowest points of the year.”

Tripadvisor’s survey also found a strong interest in international travel planning. Nearly half (47%) of all respondents said they are planning to travel internationally in 2021.

Already, the majority of hotel clicks for trips taking place from May onwards are to international destinations, Tripadvisor noted. “This is an early signal that travelers are feeling increasingly confident they will be able to travel abroad in 2021, at least in the back half of the year.”

Italy, France, Japan, Australia, and Greece are at the top of most travelers’ lists, said Misty Belles, managing director at Virtuoso travel network, citing customer planning.

Cruises may make a comeback

Travelers are also eyeing cruises, a good sign for the many cruise lines that had to abandon entire sailing seasons.

“We’re seeing growing confidence from cruisers as vaccines begin to be distributed,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief at Cruise Critic. “Both because they see it as a step in the right direction for the return of travel, and because they’ll feel most comfortable sailing knowing that they and their fellow passengers have been vaccinated.”

Many cruisers are making their bookings further out.

“Our 136-day 2021-2022 Viking World Cruise sold out more than a year in advance,” says Richard Marnell, Executive Vice President of Marketing for Viking. “And we have had such strong demand for our new Mississippi River cruises that we opened additional dates for sale in 2023 sooner than expected.” 

Rich and Suzi McClear of Sitka, Alaska, whose 2020 Holland America Line world cruise was cut short due to the pandemic, are anxious to go back to sea. “We’re rebooked for a 2022 world cruise. We’re also booked for the 2023 world cruise, which we view as an insurance policy in case the 2022 cruise does not go,” they said in an email.

Should you book a trip too?

Most travel companies now have flexible and more generous booking and cancellation policies, and prices are historically low. So, it can be a good time to book future trips.

Airfares, for example, are 20 percent lower compared to last year, said Adit Damodaran, economist for travel app Hopper. “Domestic airfare prices are expected to rise in mid-to-late March and gradually return to 2019 levels over the course of the year. And it is not too early to book for 2022, especially if you’re booking with trip protection or flexible booking options.

Cities strive to out-sanitize each other in a bid for tourist dollars

(This is an ever so slightly different version of my story that posted on NBC News).

Would a “clean city” pledge get you to plan a trip?

We’re into what by all rights should be a busy summer travel season. But many states are hitting the breaks on reopening plans due to record spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Yet in many parts of the country, beaches and bars are filling up, hotel occupancy rates are rising and attractions such as zoos, aquariums and museums are welcoming back visitors.

Disney World Resort’s phased opening plans in Florida are on track, even though Disneyland’s plans in California are delayed.  

The push to reopen is being fueled in part by businesses starving for customers and cash flow. But also by a cooped up public cautiously optimistic about making travel plans and hoping for a slowdown in the spread of COVID-19.

Communities that for months have been asking guests to stay away are now scrambling for ways to get business and leisure travelers to come back.

Campaigns to get tourists back

Now, branded campaigns declaring a destination clean, safe, and sanitized are trending.

“Tourism has taken a serious blow and destinations are doing whatever they can to restore consumer confidence,” says Misty Belles, a managing director with the Virtuoso travel agency network. “We know that concerns over contracting the virus are one of the key barriers to getting people comfortable with traveling again, so cities across the country are touting their enhanced cleaning protocols to quell those fears,” she adds.

In Ohio, window decals and website badges in Columbus are a sign that businesses have signed the “Live Forward” pledge to make the health and safety of patrons a priority.

“To meet this obligation, we’ve established additional protection measures and trained our team in enhanced best practices for safety and sanitation,” says David Miller, President and CEO of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants.

Cleveland’s Clean Committed campaign provides participating businesses with safety kits, guidelines, and materials to help make sure the city is ready for the return of visitors.

In Rochester, Minnesota (home of the Mayo Clinic), businesses in the Rochester Ready program are also implementing protocols in physical distancing, masking, cleaning, sanitizing and building ventilation.

Nashville’s Good to Go program is one of many with searchable databases of businesses that have vowed to adhere to coronavirus guidelines.

States are getting into the act as well. For example, Indiana has a Hoosier Hospitality Promise and the Count on Me NC public health initiative program stretches across North Carolina.

The list of vacation spots with clean campaigns is long and getting longer.

It is not only because cities are taking the health concerns of citizens and visitors seriously. Lodging industry consultant Bjorn Hanson says it also because “no destination manager or government entity wants to be viewed as doing less than others to attract and protect travelers.”

Will travelers trust a city’s seal of cleanliness?

Megan Tenney, whose family of six has been traveling full time since September 2018, now monitors COVID requirements and the health news in places the family is considering visiting.

“We’re focusing on places that seem to be doing better or were less affected to begin with,” said Tenney, “And I think a ‘clean campaign’ would give us the confidence to travel to a location.”

But while Brian DeRoy of Charleston, South Carolina feels that “whoever can market best in the game of being clean is going to have an advantage,” Seattle-based frequent traveler Rob Grabarek would not feel reassured by a city’s program alone.

“I’d have to examine the extent of a local government’s policies to see if I felt there were sufficient,” said Grabarek, “And while I applaud the idea of identifying businesses that are in compliance, I wouldn’t feel safe unless the entire community were adhering to the same stringent practices.”

Given that there is no single organization or government entity to oversee and assure that all these cleaning campaigns are effective, the emphasis on cleanliness as a destination marketing tool may not last long.

“Our travel advisors tell us there are really two traveler mindsets right now,” said Virtuoso’s Belles, “Those who want to pull back the curtain and know how everything they potentially come in contact with is being sterilized and those who just want to trust that it’s happening. Too much focus on cleanliness may actually backfire on those looking for the escapism in their vacation.”

What do you think? Would a city’s pledge of cleanliness be reassuring enough to get you to plan a trip?

Frivolous fountains as entertainment, attraction and investment

Those over the top fountains, waterfalls and other grand features found at hotels, malls and parks are quite snazzy – and expensive. But are they making natural attractions seem boring? Here’s our story that appeared first on CNBC.

If you visit Las Vegas and make your way to the Fountains of Bellagio, the Mirage volcano or any of the five curious and creative water features at City Center, you’ll see great examples of natural elements being used to create over-the-top entertainment.

Each experience is part of a portfolio of more than 200 unique installations around the world created by LA-based WET, a design firm that has been perfecting its techniques and pushing the boundaries of art, technology and attraction for more than 35 years.

Courtesy WET Design

“We do one-off features with new and unusual stuff that no one’s ever seen or done before,” said Jim Doyle, WET’s director of Design Technology. And like the cauldron it created for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and the showpiece it created for the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia in 2014, many of WET’s project are big and boutique projects that people talk about, take pictures of and share on Instagram and Facebook, said Doyle.

Photo by Harriet Baskas

The 130-foot-tall Rain Vortex is the newest example of WET’s work. Now the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, the Rain Vortex serves as the centerpiece of the Jewel shopping, dining and entertainment complex designed by Moshe Safde’s architecture firm for Singapore’s Changi Airport.

For Jewel, WET figured out how to create and build a circular waterfall that drops seven stories from the roof of the building.  

“It’s the first time something like this has appeared in the middle of a building,” said Doyle, “There’s nothing in there that is standard.”

Impressive enough during the day, at night the rain vortex, plus some man-made fog, creates a canvas for a first-of-its kind, 360-degree projected light-and-sound-show.

WET’s water features aren’t just meant to be pretty, said Doyle, “They become works of art, but they are also serious investments put where they’ll capture attention. You’re not going to spend money on a water feature no one will see or that doesn’t have a reason for being there.”

Courtesy WET Design

In Dubai, where bigger is always better, WET created the Dubai Fountain, the world’s tallest choreographed fountain.

Located next to the Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest malls, and Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, the $240 million fountain project has jets that launch water a record-setting 50 stories high, with more than 1,000 individually programmable elements.

“They needed something to give people a reason to come back to the building and to the shops and the restaurants in the mall time and time again,” said Doyle, “That required a very large performance feature we could continually update so that people could walk out of the building, watch a show or two, sit down for dinner, watch another show and then go back into the mall and spend more money.”

Do high-tech attractions with natural elements make “real” attractions seem boring?

While millions of travelers may flock to high-tech attractions such as the dancing light and water fountains in Dubai and Las Vegas, travel experts don’t seem to be worried that much-loved low-tech and natural attractions will seem boring by comparison and become overlooked.

“There is manmade and then there is manmade magnificent,” said Jean Newman Glock, managing director of Signature Travel Network, “The pyramids of Giza are and will always be a destination that Las Vegas could replicate but not replace. It’s the in-situ aspect – the desert that fills all your senses with the heat and arid sands of the nearby Sahara – that the Luxor [hotel] just can’t get quite right.”

Lynn Minnaert, a clinical associate professor with the Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University who visited both Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon last year, agrees.

“A lot of things we treasure as tourists, like Rome’s Trevi Fountain, are low-tech and man-made,  said Minnaert, “And while sometimes people travel purely for entertainment, those technologically-enhanced features that may be spectacular and nice to look can sometimes turn people off because they’re easily duplicated.”

High-tech attractions can add flair and a sense of place to casinos, malls, hotels and spaces that weren’t built to be authentic, said Minnaert. But natural attractions, such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park, don’t need anything added. Those places will never be boring, said Minnaert “And are beautiful as is.”

Get work done at DFW

If you fly a lot you sit a lot. If you work at a desk, you likely sit a lot too.

And if you sit a lot you increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, back pain and other things that are bad for your health.

That’s why standing – and moving around – whenever you can during a travel day is a good thing.

And that’s why the new business center in Terminal C at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is a such a welcome amenity.

Sponsored by Varidesk, the stand-up desk company, the business center is a co-working space that has standing desks, meeting tables, power hubs, and a small conference space. 

Many airports now have tall tables with power ports in many gate areas. And there are areas in many airport cafes where you can set yourself up to work, or just catch up on email, while standing. But this Varidesk co-working space just makes it look very cool.