High-speed travel: Employers push one-day business trip to avoid hotel costs

As corporate budgets shrink, so do business trips. Looking to avoid paying for overnight hotel stays, cost-conscious companies are increasingly asking employees to squeeze all their away meetings into one day -- and then turn around and fly home.

Headhunter Marc Lewis, who frequently flies between coasts on his clients' tab to interview job candidates, says the single-day business trip is becoming a familiar drill. "Several clients have suggested to us that if we're ok with it, they would prefer for us to take the red-eye home rather than stay overnight," says Lewis, founder and CEO of Leadership Capital Group, an executive search firm based in Westport, Conn.

Lewis likes the same-day return because he doesn't lose a full day of work traveling. But business travelers have to be careful about overdoing it, he warns. "You just have to manage your personal health and make sure you don't catch swine flu," he says.

The National Business Travel Association, which represents corporate travel managers and travel service providers, confirms that many corporate bean counters are considering pink-slipping the overnight business trip. "I've talked to a number of travel managers who within their companies are working with business travelers to figure out if short trips are the way to go," says Caleb Tiller, a spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based association. "We're seeing them moving to shorter hotel stays and single-day drips where you eliminate the hotel stay altogether."

As many as 27% of the trips booked through the Sabre computer reservation system -- a booking tool used by travel agents -- between February 2008 and February 2009 were completed in one day, according to The New York Times, which reported on the trend earlier this year.

To London and Back in One Day

But the same-day business trip seems to have become more frequent, and more extreme, since then. Once unheard of -- except in the days of the Concorde -- the same-day round trip between the East Coast and London is becoming more commonplace, Tiller says. "I've talked to several travelers recently who have done a one-day round-trip from the U.S. to London," Tiller says. With each leg a seven-hour-plus flight across five time zones, the experience "can certainly leave travelers tired," Tiller adds.

Of course, the business traveler's comfort is not the primary consideration. What's driving the trend is the fact that the hotel portion of the travel tab has become a much greater part of the overall business trip expense. "Over many years, airfares have really stayed the same while hotel rates long term have trended upwards," Tiller says.

With his association estimating the cost of an overnight business trip in 2009, including air, hotel and car rental at $486, businesses can save nearly 28% by eliminating the hotel stay, which is an average of $136 for the United States. Of course, hotel rates in major cities like New York and Chicago can be two or three times that, making the savings even greater when businesses cut them out.

Single-Day Business Trips Are Brutal on Hotel Industry

The one-day business trip is obviously a disastrous development for the beleaguered hotel industry, which saw its weekday occupancy rates nationwide plummet more than 12% through October compared with last year, according to industry tracker Smith Travel Research. The outfit doesn't break out business travel from overall travel, but with weekend occupancy down just half that -- 6.1% -- in the same period, "it shows that business travel has taken a bigger hit than leisure travel," says Jeff Higley, vice president of digital media and communications at the Henderson, Tenn.-based firm.

Some companies are letting their employees stay overnight, with the proviso that they combine what would have previously been two business trips into one, says Tiller. An employee who might have made a client visit to New York one month, and a visit to the home office in the Big Apple the next, could now be asked to do both in the same journey. "That way, you are looking at basically cutting your airfare in half and you certainly halve the cost of the hotel," Tiller says.

And companies that do let their employees stay overnight are benefiting from big discounts on hotel rooms. Through October, the average daily rate across the U.S. was down 9% for weekday stays and 8.6% for the weekend. "Consumers are getting very good bargains," Higley says. "The same rate cuts are being applied all throughout the week."

With the growing travel pressures, business people on the road need to find ways to decompress, says Lewis. He seeks upgrades on flights so he can sleep on a flatter seat. He also suggests joining airline clubs where travelers can work and relax in a more serene environment than a noisy airport terminal.

Despite the many miles logged in so few hours, Lewis says he'd rather pack it all in in a day. "You're always happier having a home-cooked meal in your own house than having a cheeseburger at a Holiday Inn," Lewis says. With feedback like that, it probably won't be too hard for corporate travel departments to sell the single-day business trip to their employees. Let's hope they'll at least let their employees expense coffee and Visine.

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