Business travelers miss this about recession: elbow room

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Posted: Sunday, July 7, 2013 12:00 am

It was after midnight, and Leilanie Ramos just wanted clean clothes.

An event planner for a satellite communications company, Ramos was halfway through a stretch of back-to-back trade shows that kept her on the road for nearly two weeks. She checked into her hotel in Tampa, Fla., after a late-night arrival from Istanbul with plans to do her laundry at the hotel’s facility, figuring she would have the machines to herself at that hour.

“There were two other people doing laundry at almost 1 o’clock in the morning,” she said.

Since there were only two washing machines, Ramos had to wait, finally getting to bed around 3 a.m., she said.

“There’s a lot more people where you don’t expect them to be,” she said.

For a few years, business travelers had lobbies and lounges (not to mention laundry rooms) to themselves. It was a silver lining of sorts, even if the economic outlook was grim, consumer confidence was shaken and personal finance experts promoted the benefits of the “staycation.”

This summer, that trend is over. The U.S. Travel Association says leisure travel will hit a record this year, while belt-tightening in the hotel and airline industries means packed houses all around.

“Now, it’s a free-for-all,” said Jeff Butler, an engineer for a company that makes broadband equipment whose work takes him on the road three to four days a week.

“Leisure travel is back, and it’s back stronger,” said Alex Tonarelli, general manager at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel.

Scott Berman, principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers Hospitality and Leisure, said that from the perspective of the hotel industry, that’s good news.

“People are feeling better about themselves,” he said, making them more likely to indulge in a vacation this summer.

PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the average hotel occupancy in the United States this year will reach 62.2 percent, the most crowded that hotels have been since 2007.

Planes are also “chockablock full,” said airline industry analyst Robert W. Mann Jr., who predicted domestic flights would be 84 percent full this year.

“It means everyone is sharing an armrest,” he said.

Business travelers wistfully remember when they had elbow room — or even an entire row to themselves — on flights that left at inconvenient times.

“The early morning flights that used to be just business travelers are now filled with people on a discount fare,” Butler said.

What’s more, he said, the Transportation Safety Administration lines aren’t as fully staffed at odd hours, making the wait to be screened even longer.

“It never used to be that bad,” he said.

Ramos said she remembered when “you’d have empty seats next to you for those red-eyes and long international flights; you could easily stretch out.”

But on her international trips so far this year, she said, “All of the seats were taken.”

Barry Richards, a vice president for production at a company that creates media for hospital marketing, said he was seeing a lot of full flights.

“The thing I always watch out for is families and school groups and anybody who doesn’t look like they have much experience traveling,” he said. “I don’t want to be behind somebody that requires a lot of re-scanning.”

Business travelers say they find themselves stuck in long lines more often at hotels, too. On a recent trip to Las Vegas, Butler said, his hotel’s front desk was overwhelmed, even with five people working behind it.

Most of his fellow travelers didn’t appear to be visiting the city on business, he said, adding, “They were folks that were there to have fun in Vegas.”

“It was crazy getting through,” he said. “I probably waited close to an hour at check-in.”

In some cases, business travelers can’t even get a room.

“We seem to encounter more and more sold-out hotels,” Richards said. “In the past, we haven’t run into that a whole lot.”

He said in his 15 years of business travel, the competition for rooms was never this fierce.

The shortage of hotel rooms is a combination of two factors, Berman said. Demand is booming, but few hotels are opening because the credit crisis left developers unable to get financing to build them.

To avoid the noise that is an inevitable part of more crowded hotels, business travelers say, they request rooms in less-trafficked parts of hotels: upper floors and corner rooms far from elevators, ice and vending machines.

Sometimes, though, business travelers find it’s impossible to escape.

At a recent stay in New York City, Mandy Arnold, an advertising company president, said, she had been looking forward to unwinding in the evenings on the hotel’s roof deck but was thwarted by a noisy, boisterous group of about a dozen people “taking over the area as if it was their living room,” she said.

“They were out there every night. It was a bit of a letdown.”

The revelers had gone so far as to bring a cooler and set up a portable grill in the ostensibly shared space.

“As a business traveler, you get annoyed when you can’t relax,” she said. “It’s that additional noise in the background.”

Hotel managers have to walk a tightrope to keep freewheeling vacationers and stressed-out business travelers happy.

At the Loews Miami Beach, Tonarelli said, the hotel restaurant had some quieter sections away from the banquettes where families are seated.

“If we’ve got a busy family weekend but we have a convention in-house and we see two or three businesspeople that come down with their iPads and their suits, we identify that and we’ll do everything possible to seat them in those areas,” he said.

Knowing his hotel’s typical traffic pattern helps his staff anticipate waves of business or leisure travelers, said Mark Pardue, general manager at the Grand Hyatt New York.

“There are instances where, on the weekends we’d use an empty meeting space for kids’ movies and games.” Doing this, he said, “keeps our hallways free and clear and the tranquility of our hotel intact.”

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