Remember when airline tickets were handwritten? When you were served a hot meal on every flight? When you could take two suitcases and didn’t have to worry about how heavy they were? When there was (gasp!) an in-flight smoking section?
I’m not going to waste words outlining how travel has changed in the past two decades – we’re all familiar with the extra rules, regulations, and fees. I do, however, want to check in on the lot of the travel agent (or travel consultant or travel counselor, as I believe some prefer).
There was a time when travel agents were the gatekeepers of all sorts of knowledge: the best deals, schedules, creative travel routes, even how many seats were available on a plane. These days, I can find most of that online, which is exactly how I do all my booking. I have worked for at least one company that does the same thing: compares prices online and books the best one.
I have learned that this, in the travel business, could be referred to as “going rogue” or “off-road.” However, companies trying to accumulate points, or take advantage of travel programs or partnerships don’t always take kindly to individual employees surfing the ‘net for promo codes and seat sales.
“The deal is in the corporate program,” says Sherry Saunders, senior vice-president and general manager of Carlson Wagonlit Travel Canada. “We can help corporations make sure they maximize money in travel… we may work out a program, for example, that includes breakfast and Internet use with the hotel room. We can keep all costs in sight.”
“The biggest thing people want from their travel management is responsiveness,” says Kathy Coyle, vice president of business travel management for Maritime Travel, from her office in Halifax. “People want quick answers, and the right answers.” They also want access to the expertise of someone who knows the best routes for the most efficient travel. Tracking unused tickets can save money; by noting frequent routes, hotels, and rentals, the travel management company may be able to negotiate better rates.
But seriously, isn’t there an app for all of that?
Maybe – but here’s another thing to think about: “Safety and security,” says Saunders. “You have to be able to find people in times of crisis.”
If there’s a major storm or unexpected crisis, company leaders need to know where all their people are, at all times. Coyle recalls the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. Who could have foreseen that kind of travel havoc?
“People were stuck all over the place,” she remembers. Being able to track clients and return them home as soon as possible is something she argues no iPhone or Blackberry could manage.
While we’re on the topic of technology, do people even need to travel for business any more? Between teleconferences and video conferences and Skype and webinars, aren’t businesses trying to save money, time, and hassle these days by staying put?
“Our experience in the past couple of years is that business travel has grown quite a bit,” says Coyle. “Business is relationship driven; you can’t have a meaningful partnership over the Internet.”
“People are doing business globally now,” adds Saunders. “Companies are selling products to Asia, across North America. Sometimes they’re selling to a different culture. You need actual meetings to do that. Global and international travel is up, year over year.”
Then there’s the natural resources sector. Not only do management and stakeholders regularly fly in and out of fairly remote areas – think of some of the busy mining sites in Labrador, for example – but there are massive crew changes to orchestrate. “Moving that many people at the same time can be very complex,” Coyle says. This is a huge area of growth for her company, especially in Newfoundland and Labrador.
While on the phone with expert travel planners, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask for recommendations: what are the new destinations of choice?
Coyne says that the most popular vacation locations will always be those simplest to get to. From Atlantic Canada, that’s Florida, Cuba, the Dominican Republic – wherever direct flights go.
But, she says, many of today’s travelers are getting more adventurous. “People now see the globe on television and online and they know what’s out there,” she says. European river cruises – the boat travels right into the downtown of major European capitals – are more intimate and specialized than the massive cruise liners. Specialty group trips, whether they revolve around food, wine, or a particular aspect of history, are also on the rise.
Saunders sees new destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico, opening up and offering new opportunities for the leisure traveller.
It all sounds good to me. It might be time to go rogue…