Roundtable: Dissecting the evolution of the modern business traveler

Pictured from left to right: Matthew Woodruff, SVP of guest and brand excellence with Hospitality Ventures Management Group; Greg Horeth, COO at Spire Hospitality; Andre Martin, GM of the Crowne Plaza Atlanta Airport and the Holiday Inn Atlanta Airport South; Angela Xavier, VP of sales for the Americas with InterContinental Hotels Group; Meredith Latham, head of Crowne Plaza Hotels, Americas at InterContinental Hotels Group; Jason Aspes, executive creative director at Ogilvy and Mather; Paul Breslin, managing director at Horwath HTL and managing partner of Panther Hospitality; and David Eisen, editor-in-chief, HOTEL MANAGEMENT.

What do business travelers want that sets them apart from leisure travelers, and are hotels giving them what they need? Seven experts met with HOTEL MANAGEMENT at the Crowne Plaza in Atlanta to discuss the rapidly evolving business travel landscape and how hoteliers can hold these travelers’ interest while providing the experiences they crave.

Describing the modern business traveler can be challenging, but Meredith Latham, head of Crowne Plaza Hotels, Americas at InterContinental Hotels Group, said the devil is in the details. The biggest thing differentiating modern business travelers from those of yesteryear is age—with recent college graduates traveling for work booking rooms next to other business travelers in their 50s and 60s. As the age gap widens, a different set of expectations becomes the norm on the road.

“[Modern travelers] have a need to do something more than just work when they are traveling,” Latham said. “There’s definitely a blend of work and life taking place, and we are trying to figure out exactly how to accommodate that.”

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Paul Breslin, managing director at Horwath HTL and managing partner of Panther Hospitality, said business travel has moved from an age demographic to a psychological demographic. This is a good thing, because it opens the business travel space up to more potential customers, but it also presents a challenge because a psychological demographic is more difficult to understand and plan for.

“It’s harder to be a hotel brand today because of so many different things you’ve got to do and serve,” Breslin said. He also pointed out business travelers’ penchant for desiring accuracy, as well as the time-sensitive nature of their needs, neither of which have subsided in recent years. “The business travelers we deal with… they have extremely high expectations, and they want it right the first time, which is very hard.”

Andre Martin, GM of the Crowne Plaza Atlanta Airport and the Holiday Inn Atlanta Airport South, said advancements in technology have also altered the needs of business travelers, who shift from work and play throughout the day, and want to experience that while on the road.

“Going from doing business into a social environment or activity—technology allows us to do that seamlessly,” Martin said. “People are very time sensitive, and when the right moment is there, that’s when they switch between one or the other. We’re seeing that more and more in hospitality.”

Last year, IHG announced a $200-million investment to reposition its Crowne Plaza brand across the Americas. The Accelerate plan targets hotels in key business destinations with new programming and new designs for guestrooms and public spaces, acknowledging the blurred lines between work and relaxation.

Matthew Woodruff, SVP of guest and brand excellence with Hospitality Ventures Management Group; Greg Horeth, COO at Spire Hospitality; and Andre Martin, GM of the Crowne Plaza Atlanta Airport and the Holiday Inn Atlanta Airport South, discussed the industry’s fascination with open public spaces.

Curated Environments

When it comes to shared public spaces, Greg Horeth, COO at Spire Hospitality, said it’s common for guests to filter into a public area in twos and threes, but the space only becomes “activated” (meaning food-and-beverage service) if operators make an effort to transform the location into one conducive to multiple groups.

“When we set out a few years ago on the journey of the modern business traveler, we tried to eliminate the question of ‘where should we meet?’ We wanted it to be obvious. ‘Right here,’” Jason Aspes, executive creative director at Ogilvy and Mather, said during the discussion. “There is no reason to leave. If you can create that [environment], then you are on the right track.”

Angela Xavier, VP of sales for the Americas at InterContinental Hotels Group, said this mentality plays into a hotel’s purpose as a base camp for business travelers by simplifying decision-making. Whether travelers are unfamiliar with their surroundings or they are tired from the journey, Xavier said it should be a hotel’s goal to ease them into the environment, inform them of what is on offer and get out of their way.

“People are really excited to get to us,” she said. “When they get to us, they think, ‘I’m done with the craziness of travel… with the craziness of all my meetings at the office.’ So the check-in better be the easiest thing they’ve had to do all day. And after that, they rarely want to go out. You want them to be able to say, ‘Oh, I’m so happy this place has got it going on; I’m staying right here.’”

Greg Horeth and Andre Martin discussed the ways business travel has been affected by changes in technology, as compared to leisure travelers.

Dining In – Or Out

Xavier’s reflection on business travelers’ arrival habits shifted the discussion to trends in food and beverage, with Breslin praising such hotels as Kimpton’s Eventi in New York for its attention to detail, as well as its restaurant’s atmosphere. Latham said the goal of any hotel restaurant should be to reflect the culture of the area, therefore a hotel in New York should reflect New York sensibilities, while a hotel in Portland, Ore., should do the same for Portland.

For hotels on a budget, however, Breslin has a few suggestions.

“We manage a Holiday Inn Express in Blowing Rock, N.C., and the new GM wants the staff to know all the restaurants in the market,” he said. “They can’t afford [a restaurant] like that, but they shouldn’t lose the opportunity to reach out to the guest. They can recommend nice restaurants nearby, or hiking trails, activities.”

Therein lies the true differentiator in the marketplace, or so says Matthew Woodruff, SVP of guest and brand excellence with Hospitality Ventures Management Group. While Woodruff said there are many alternatives to hotels, hotels remain the one place a traveler can go where service can differentiate the experience from another location.

“If you all think of your favorite restaurant, it may not be the fanciest four-star restaurant,” Woodruff said. “It may be the hole-in-the-wall dive place that has OK food, but it just makes you feel like you love this place and you come back every time.”

Paul Breslin, managing director at Horwath HTL and managing partner of Panther Hospitality; Angela Xavier, VP of sales for the Americas with InterContinental Hotels Group; and Jason Aspes, executive creative director at Ogilvy and Mather, mulled over the level of customization currently offered to hotel guests, and how this customization extends to rewards programs.

Customize Your Life

Business travelers are rarely casual travelers, and when they are on the road and on the clock, most enjoy collecting their rewards points.

Xavier said customization remains an important factor in providing a satisfactory business-travel experience, and this customization has evolved to include the way in which business travelers spend their rewards points when it is time to explore with their families.

“There could be someone who stays at InterContinental all the time, but guess what, they have three kids at home,” Xavier said. “When they go on vacation, they want the Holiday Inn Resort. It goes back to the occasion.”

When asked what sets select-service business travelers apart from their full-service counterparts, Aspes said it’s a combination of preference, location and price, and whether or not the traveler is personally paying for their travel is another factor to consider.

“If you’re on business and have a budget to play with, you go up in scale,” Aspes said. “When it’s personal you go down. For small business owners who are very price conscious, we also see it going down.”

Latham, however, said it can be a factor as simple as what a property’s breakfast setup is. That level of customization is, to her, the surest differentiator in what a guest is looking for when it comes to business travel.

“It’s, ‘I want to have breakfast ready when I’m on my way out the door,’ versus ‘I want my eggs, my way,’ at the Crowne Plaza,” Latham said.

Meredith Latham, head of Crowne Plaza Hotels, Americas at InterContinental Hotels Group, said hotel restaurants, and indeed every aspect of a successful destination hotel, should be designed to reflect the culture of the surrounding area.

Finding A Line to Cross

As the discussion drew to a close, the talk turned to predictive technology and how it might improve the guest experience for the growing number of demanding, time-sensitive business travelers flocking to hotels. Horeth said he expects artificial intelligence to play a major role in future decision-making processes on property, and he wondered just how more efficient hotel operations can become with assistance from these systems.

"Let’s face it, we all know that if we step into a hotel, depending on our profiles at the hotel, many of them—not all of them—already know you’re in the building,” Horeth said. “Since they know you’re there, they can send you messages such as, ‘By the way, come down and join us in the restaurant for a drink.’”

Woodruff said that thanks to Bluetooth beacons, hotels are also able to provide information on the local area without ever setting foot off property. This level of service, he said, can help build emotional loyalty.

“I think [in the future] transactional loyalty and all kinds of loyalty will get neutralized; costs will not become the issue and I think it’s all going to be about experiences,” Woodruff said. “I travel a lot, and I have memories about what I loved [during travel]. I think those are going to be what the person remembers, and keeps that loyalty.”

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