Just landed

Businesstraveller.com compiles this week’s stories from the lighter side of business travel.

Bottle beautiful

Bombay Sapphire is to display five handcrafted crystal gin bottles at major airports around the world. The first terminal to see one of the US$200,000 Revelation bottles will be the forthcoming Heathrow T5, with the jewel-encrusted bottle staying at the airport for two months, before being transported to its owner. And they say diamonds are forever.

I luv u 2

Over three quarters of business travellers tell their partners “I love you” more frequently when they are away on business trips, according to a survey by Crowne Plaza hotels. The poll also reveals that a quarter of Londoners send “saucy” text messages while in business meetings – presumably not along the lines of “Did you remember the tomato ketchup darling?”.

Terminal troubles

In scenes reminiscent of Tom Hank’s movie The Terminal, a homeless chef has spent the last four years living at Gatwick airport. Anthony Delaney has been banned from the airport where he has been eating, sleeping and showering since he lost his job as a chef in 2004. Maybe Gordon Ramsay should solve both problems by offering him a job at his new T5 restaurant.

Hotel heroics

The Dolce International hotel group has launched an “action hero” team-building programme at its La Hulpe Brussels property. Delegates are set the task of “saving the world in a two-hour ‘sensory centric’ activity”, where they must discover the components of a “universal serum”. What ever happened to brainstorming over a platter of cucumber sandwiches?

Dominoes and daiquiris

The Langham Hotel on London’s Regent Street is now running Dominoes and Daiquiris evenings at its refurbished Artesian Bar. For £40, two people can enjoy a couple of cocktails each, a sharing platter, and the use of a domino set for the evening. Rumours the hotel is also considering a Backgammon and Bitter soirée are unfounded.

By Mark Caswell

T5 countdown: The on-airport hotel

Sofitel’s second UK on-airport hotel (the other being the Sofitel Gatwick) is due to open its doors in June this year, shortly after the unveiling of the new terminal at T5. There are of course plenty of existing options within easy reach of the airport (see Heathrow Hotels, Business Traveller April 2006), and Travelodge has recently opened a 295-room property just west of the new terminal. Hilton will follow suit in 2010, but there’s no doubting the Sofitel London Heathrow will be the most convenient for T5 passengers.

Attached to the new terminal by a covered walkbridge, the 607-room Sofitel London Heathrow will open around two months after the launch of T5, with room inventory being added to the Accor booking engine in “two to three weeks time”. The hotel is already taking bookings for many of its 41 functions rooms, with “midscale” events planned for July and August, scaling up to major functions from September.

So what can guests expect from the new hotel? When I visited last week it was still very much a hard-hat tour, although finished surfaces were beginning to appear in rooms and public areas, and hotel manager Vincent Madden is confident that, with nearly 1,000 workers on site, the hotel will be completed by the June deadline.

Central to the project is The Avenue, a 187-metre internal boulevard off which the hotel’s retail outlets and eateries will be located, including a tea lounge (Tea 5, obviously) where guests will also be able to charge mobile phones. As Madden points out, most of the facilities at T5 will be located airside, so Sofitel will hope to cash in on informal business meetings and lunches at the hotel. The property will also house a theme bar called Sphere, as well as the 100-seat fine-dining restaurant Brasserie Roux (which also appears in the Sofitel St James London), overseen by Albert Roux and including a chef’s table and executive boardroom for private dining.

The Avenue will also connect the property’s five atria, which in turn split the hotel into six blocks. Blocks five and six will be reserved for the hotel’s suites, where there will also be a prestige check-in area and executive lounge.

Of course, the majority of guests will not be staying in suite accommodation, but Madden is adamant that all guests will receive five-star treatment, regardless of room type. There will be a total of 21 separate check-in points throughout the hotel, which Madden hopes will mean no queueing on arrival or departure, and all rooms in the property will have triple glazing to shield guests from the roar of planes.

The 201 Classic rooms at the hotel will measure 26 sqm, with a further 188 Superior rooms at 28 sqm, 164 Luxury Rooms and 52 Suites of varying sizes. The Luxury categories and above will also benefit from two-metre beds, while all rooms will have a separate bath and shower (Luxury rooms and Suites have TVs in the bathrooms), wifi internet access, US power sockets, a master control screen for in-room technology, and flatscreen TVs into which guests can plug mp3 players and laptops. Interiors have been designed by KCA, whose previous clients include the Burj Al Arab and the Four Seasons Hong Kong.

Many of the hotel’s rooms will look onto internal atria, and Sofitel has made showpieces of several of these areas, including a 60 x 12-metre Zen garden, which guests will be able to wander about in or simply view from the glass-fronted lifts and open hallways. Madden says: “These areas are all about silence, light and greenery. We wanted to take people away from that feeling of a typical airport hotel.”

The hotel will also offer some of the most comprehensive meetings and events facilities in Europe, in what John Donaldson, executive director for Sofitel London Heathrow, describes as the “most accessible place on earth”. The 41 function rooms will range from boardrooms up to the 2,000-capacity Arora Suite, as well as a 117-seater theatre, and car parking for 400 delegates.

Donaldson says research into the meetings market has led to many of the facilities delegates will see at the new hotel. “When we were surveying events organisers, one of their main desires was for flexibility, for rooms which move according to their needs. They also said they were tired of the same old traditional delegate food – they wanted something more creative and spontaneous, so we’ve come up with Vivre, a live-cooking concept where five food theatres will compete for delegates’ orders. We’ve also included rooms specifically for the events organisers – a sort of refuge, as well as green rooms for performing artists.”

T5 will be well-trodden by the time the Sofitel property opens, but as John Donaldson points out, the hotel will be “for the whole of Heathrow, not just Terminal 5”. Judging by the scale of the conference facilities at the hotel, it’s likely to be for the whole of London as well.

For more information visit sofitelheathrow.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Bmibaby adds three new routes from Manchester

Low-cost carrier Bmibaby has announced three new routes from Manchester to Lisbon, Madrid and Barcelona.

The twice-weekly Lisbon flight starts on June 17 and will depart Manchester at 0850 on Tuesday and Sunday, arriving into the Portuguese capital at 1150, with the return leg departing at 1220 and arriving back into the UK at 1520.

No other carrier currently serves this route, as is the case for the forthcoming Manchester-Madrid service, which will depart four times per week (Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday) from June 16. The outbound leg will depart Manchester at 1425, arriving into the Spanish capital at 1755, with the inbound flight leaving Madrid at 1825 and arriving into the UK at 1955.

Meanwhile, Bmibaby will also compete with the incumbent Monarch Airlines on the Manchester-Barcelona route from this September. The four-weekly service (as opposed to Monarch’s daily offering) will depart the UK on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 1415, arriving into the Catalan city at 1740, with the return leg leaving at 1825 and arriving into Manchester at 1950.

Fares for the new routes start from £24.99 one-way. For more information visit bmibaby.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Mercure adds Edinburgh hotel

Hotel group Accor has added a Mercure property to its portfolio of Edinburgh hotels.

The 139-room Mercure Point Hotel will join the Ibis Edinburgh Centre, the Novotel Edinburgh Centre, and the forthcoming Novotel Edinburgh Park (opening this April) in the capital. It is the second Mercure-branded property in Scotland, the other being the Mercure Ardoe House Hotel and Spa in Aberdeen.

Mercure has signed a 20-year agreement to manage the rebranded hotel, originally known as the Point Hotel Edinburgh (the “Point” part of the name refers to the triangular shape of the Victorian building in which the hotel is housed). The property is located on Bread Street, with views of Edinburgh Castle.

All rooms have wifi internet access, and there are six meeting rooms as well as the award-winning Point Restaurant. The hotel itself was this week named “Edinburgh Hotel of the Year” by Hotel Review Scotland.

For more information visit mercure-uk.com.

Report by Mark Caswell

Car rental round-up

Avis has extended its Preferred Members “three-minute promise” to all major UK airports, following successful trials at Heathrow. The service guarantees that members of Avis’s loyalty scheme will have their car keys and printed rental agreement within three minutes of entering Avis premises, or else receive an apology and a £20 retail voucher.

The scheme is already in place in 390 locations across Europe, including 18 Avis branches in France, where the company says it has achieved an average 99.7 per cent success rate. For more information visit avis.co.uk.

Europcar is to add CO2 emissions data to descriptions of its rental cars, to allow customers to make an informed choice when choosing their vehicle. Cars will be split into emissions categories ranging from an average of 130g/km (such as the Peugeot 107), up to 230g/km (for example, the Volvo V70). Europcar says it is also researching technologies such as biofuel, HDi and BlueMotion in order to introduce a sub-120g/km CO2 emissions group.

In other news, Europcar will open its first branch in Beijing this week. Initially, the firm will offer a chauffeur service for travel within the city, as well as a transfer service between the city centre and Beijing’s Capital International airport. For more information visit europcar.com.

Budget Rent a Car has added 80 locations in Germany to its portfolio. The expansion follows the merger of Budget’s German licensee Alag AG and German car-rental operator Robert Straub GmbH, and means the company now has 140 locations across the country.

Meanwhile, Budget has extended its trial of hybrid vehicles to Heathrow airport, following their initial introduction at Edinburgh airport last year – the company is also trialling Saab and Volvo biofuel cars at a number of its locations in Sweden. For more information visit budget.co.uk.

Report by Mark Caswell

Flight numbers

905 million The record profit before tax in Australian dollars (£425 million) achieved by Qantas for the last six months of 2007. The figure represents a 73 per cent increase on the same period in 2006.

2,220,032 The number of passengers who passed through Gatwick airport in January 2008. The figure includes a rise of 22.4 per cent in passengers travelling to Ireland, compared with January 2007.

66,678 The amount in euros raised by Finnair’s Change for Good Christmas campaign, in association with UNICEF. The money collected will go towards helping children affected by HIV and AIDS in Vietnam.

539 The number of billboard, poster and flatscreen TV ads at the forthcoming Heathrow Terminal 5. Advertising specialist JC Decaux estimates that a typical T5 visitor will see between 50 and 120 adverts during their time at the airport.

74.3 The percentage of businesstraveller.com readers who think all hotels should go 100 per cent smoke-free. Click here to take part in our latest survey.

53 The number of hotels signed by the Rezidor Hotel Group during 2007. The group now has 65,840 rooms either in operation or under development, including over 200 Radisson and 100 Park Inn brands.

44.3 The percentage of those voting London’s black cabs as the best in the world, according to a survey of 3,300 people by hotels.com. New York polled second with 15.4 per cent, with Madrid in third place with 11.4 per cent.

Three The number of additional A380 superjumbos ordered by Korean Air this month. The new order brings the total number of A380s purchased by the carrier to eight, with the first aircraft due to be delivered in 2010.

By Mark Caswell

Businesstraveller.com launches online loyalty section

Businesstraveller.com has launched a dedicated online loyalty section, allowing visitors to search for promotions and news on their favourite loyalty schemes.

Readers of the print edition of Business Traveller will be familiar with our popular Loyalty Update section, which for many years has provided subscribers with the latest news on airline, hotel and car hire loyalty schemes.

The recent relaunch of businesstraveller.com has allowed us to adapt this section online, with added advantages such as search menus and direct links to loyalty websites.

The all-new loyalty section covers airline, hotel and car hire loyalty programmes, as well as airline and hotel alliance schemes. Users can search for specific promotions with our easy-to-use drop-down menus, or simply browse all of the current deals.

We have already uploaded over 100 loyalty promotions, and will be adding more in the coming weeks – if your favourite scheme is not yet listed, send us a request email to editorial@businesstraveller.com, and we’ll put it to the top of the list.

To find out more and start searching our database of loyalty deals, visit businesstraveller.com/loyalty.

The businesstraveller.com team

If you are a PR for an airline, hotel or car hire company, and would like to add your loyalty promotions to our website, click here to find out more.

Continental Open Skies Expansion

On March 30, Continental Airlines will launch twice-daily flights non-stop from London Heathrow to both New York and Houston. (See online news November 16, 2007.)

Of course, this rush for Heathrow is a result of Open Skies, which begins at the end of March. Indeed American Airlines, despite moving to a twice-daily service out of Stansted, is increasing Heathrow services (see online news July 13, 2007), while Delta is launching an Atlanta service from Heathrow, as well as a double-daily service to New York JFK.

What is remarkable is that for Continental, this brings its UK and Ireland departure points up to ten including Gatwick – it has services from Manchester (twice daily with a Boeing 757), Edinburgh (daily and twice daily in summer with a 757), and Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol and Belfast (all daily with 757s). The airline also flies double daily from Dublin and daily from Shannon.

The turnaround in the airline – one of only two American international carriers to avoid Chapter 11 since 2001 – has been remarkable, with its revenues moving from a 95:5 international to domestic split, to more like 50:50. It now operates over 300 departures weekly across the Atlantic, from 30 cities in 16 countries, also serving Amsterdam (twice daily, and 11-times weekly to Houston), Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Cologne, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hamburg, Lisbon, Madrid, Milan, Oslo (all daily to New York), Paris (three times daily to New York and daily to Houston, with a summer-season daily flight to Cleveland), Rome, Stockholm, Zurich, Tel Aviv, Delhi and Mumbai (all daily to New York).

This overseas expansion has been the result of investing in a more modern fleet than most of its US competitors, most notably with Boeing 757 planes in a two-class configuration, economy and businessfirst. The 757 and 777 planes have been fitted with audio and visual on demand (AVOD) in the business cabins, which offer a choice of films, TV shows and audio channels (the choice is greater on the 777 planes), and seat power for laptops. This is now being rolled out through the economy sections as the seats are replaced and seat-back screens are being introduced.

In contrast to many carriers, Continental has not made any announcement about this, intending to wait until the majority of the fleet has been fitted. It’s a policy Bob Schumacher, senior director UK and Ireland, describes as “Under promising and over delivering”.

The attraction for travellers is two-fold. From the UK regions, Continental offers a direct way of reaching New York and then onward through the Newark hub to cities throughout the USA, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. For those already using fellow Skyteam member KLM for its 14 UK departure points to Schiphol* (see below) and then onwards, it also offers a way of earning, and burning, frequent flyer points with a fellow Skyteam member.

Schumacher says that the Continental One Pass programme alone has some 80,000 active members in the UK. He is certain that being excluded from Heathrow in the years prior to 2008, forced the airline to be innovative and look at regional airports as a way of serving the UK market.

Schumacher says: “Manchester was our first foray, then Birmingham, and these are now healthy and profitable operations for us. In that sense we are regarding the new Heathrow flights as just another departure point, and we certainly won’t be neglecting either Gatwick, or these regional airports as a result of this new move.”

In business class the airline offers limousine transfers at both ends, up to a radius of 40 miles for J or D ticket holders, and looking forward to its move into Terminal 4 at the end of the year, is promising to build facilities which will consolidate the Skyteam offering in the terminal. The investment in the fleet will continue with the airline’s firm order for 25 Boeing 787s and will continue a process which has seen the fleet increase its fuel efficiency by 35 per cent in the last ten years.

With everything looking so wonderful, what could go wrong? Well two obvious matters are proposed flight capping in the New York airspace to relieve congestion, and the possibility that Continental might merge with either American Airlines or United.

On flight capping, Continental’s response is that “the congestion is a complicated issue which needs to be resolved on several levels”, suggesting the federal government needs to fund an overhaul of how the airspace is structured and managed in the long run, while in the short term it is already limiting flight activity to fit within the practical capacity limits which exist. (For more on this, see the April issue of Business Traveller, out  March 19.) As for the latter, the official response is that the airline wishes to remain independent, but if consolidation occurs among competitors putting it at a disadvantage, it will move to find partners.

For more information visit continental.com.

Report by Tom Otley

*KLM’s regional departures to Schiphol:

(Aberdeen: 21, Birmingham: 40, Bristol: 27, Cardiff: 27, Durham Tees Valley: 20, Edinburgh: 35, Glasgow: 28 Humberside: 21, Leeds: 21, London Heathrow: 62, London City: 44, Manchester: 48, Norwich: 27, Newcastle: 34-455 weekly departures in total.)

T5 countdown: The premium passenger

T5With the majority of its Heathrow passengers soon to be travelling through one dedicated terminal, British Airways has had to think seriously about how to handle its premium customers at T5. The result is a total of six lounges (or “Galleries”) costing £60 million – finishing touches are still being made to many of these areas, and some sections were inaccessible when I visited this week, but it is still possible to get a feel for the scale of the project. The lounges are capable of hosting up to 2,500 passengers – a 25 per cent increase in comparison with the lounges at Terminal 1 and 4.

CHECK-IN AND SECURITY

There are no premium check-in desks for business class passengers in T5 – British Airways believes it will be able to get all passengers, regardless of class of travel, from the terminal’s entrance to being airside in an average of only ten minutes.

BA aims to achieve this by encouraging 80 per cent of passengers flying from the terminal, to either check-in online or use one of the 96 self-service kiosks (along with the same number of fast bag-drops). It has also increased the number of security lanes to 18 (including premium fast track lanes at either end of the terminal), compared with eight at T4. The security conveyor belts now have two exits – one for possessions which have passed the security check, and the other for baggage requiring further examination – to avoid queues of trays (and therefore people) stacking up.

I was also talked through the “no turning back” policy, which means checked baggage is transported downwards from the fast bag-drops rather than horizontally on conveyor belts, so passengers can then proceed forward towards security instead of having to go around the belted area.

As T5 is dedicated entirely to British Airways customers, passengers can choose to check-in anywhere within the terminal, although the airline anticipates most premium customers will gravitate towards the south end of the building, where the majority of the lounges and the separate first class check-in area are situated. The exception is for passengers heading to the domestic/shorthaul lounge, which is located at the north end, or those flying from satellite building Terminal 5B (linked to the main terminal by a 60-second underground transit ride and with its own lounge facilities).

AIRSIDE: THE LOUNGES

Once through security, premium passengers head upstairs towards one of three main lounges (the other three being the shorthaul departures lounge, the satellite lounge in T5B, and the Arrivals lounge). BA has commissioned several art works for the new lounges, with a constantly changing piece entitled Cloud hanging above the main escalators to the galleries. The five metre-long installation uses similar technology to “flip dot” information boards at railways stations, to create a wave-like appearance on its surface.Credit: Alex Delfanne/Artwise Curators 2008The upper level houses the Galleries Club lounge for Club World, Club Europe, Gold and Silver Executive Club members, while one floor down on the Pavilion level, is the Galleries First lounge for first class customers and Gold Executive Club members, along with the Concorde Room for first class passengers and “specially invited guests”. An Elemis Travel Spa, open to first and Club World passengers, as well as gold card holders on longhaul flights, is also located on this floor.

GALLERIES CLUB LOUNGE

This is the largest of the new lounges, with space for 830 passengers. Features include two Silver bars with Swarovski crystal chandeliers, fabrics by Osborne and Little, and a cinema which will be used to show sporting events. There is wifi internet access provided by BT Openzone throughout T5, and this is free in the new BA lounges.

In keeping with the “silent airport” policy at the new terminal, flights are not called from any of the lounges (it would after all get a little tedious to constantly hear “BA flight XX is now ready for boarding”), but as a result there is an increased number of departure boards to inform passengers, including in many of the shopping outlets.

GALLERIES FIRST LOUNGE

Credit: Alex Delfanne / Artwise Curators 2008Go down to the Pavilion level and you’ll find a huge “electroluminescent art wall” entitled All the Time in the World – a digital display showing world time zones on a striking blue background. To the left, passengers are welcomed into the Galleries First lounge by a curious talking point – two statues of black horses with lampshades on their heads, several more of which are dotted around the other galleries. This section has 540 seats, wooden floors, a terrace area, a Gold bar and Champagne bar complete with Swarovski crystal “bubbles” overhead. It also houses several more works of art including Oak Seasons, a series of 3D laser etched screens showing the growing cycle of the English Oak tree, and complete with “hidden” details including a leaf transformed into a roadmap of the UK.

CONCORDE ROOM

The plush Concorde Room can accommodate up to 156 guests and has a restaurant with privacy booths, digital imitation “fires”, a boardroom with genuine Concorde seats, a terrace area, and three relaxation “cabanas”, bookable up to two weeks in advance. Artwork here includes Pegasus and the Winged Lion – created to look like a stone carving of British Airways’ crest, it is in fact a slowly moving digital display bringing the the mythical characters to life.

Next door, the Elemis Spa promises facilities including massage chairs, “flying facials” and “cooling hot-stone therapies”. Finally, for arriving passengers, the Galleries Arrivals Lounge includes a full restaurant for first class passengers, self-service breakfast bar for Club World customers and gold card holders, more spa facilities, six “infinity” bathrooms, and 94 shower rooms with valet boxes for suit pressing.

An impressive offering – and it needs to be – all eyes will be on the new terminal when it opens next month, and frequent travellers will be eager to see how the T5 premium experience compares with the current offerings at T1 and T4.

For more information visit ba.com/terminal5.

Report by Mark Caswell

Is BA right not to have business class check-in desks at T5? Click here to take part in our survey.

Park Plaza to introduce HD IPTVs

Flatscreen TVs have become the norm in many hotel chains, but Park Plaza is to go one step further, by installing high-definition internet television systems in its guest rooms.

The group is to introduce VDA’s Power TV HD in 12 of its properties by 2009, with the Park Plaza Victoria London being the first to benefit in May. One of the main advantages of internet protocol television (IPTV), where the TV signal is distributed using a broadband internet connection, is the ability to provide guests with video, games and music on demand.

Marco Bartelsman, corporate IT manager for Park Plaza, explains that it was an “understanding of changing guest behaviour” which led to the decision to go HD.

He said: “A key advantage of using an IP-based system like Power TV is that it enables us to offer video on demand.

“The concept of pay TV is likely to become obsolete within the next two to three years, as guests no longer have the time or the interest to watch a film for more than two hours in their room. With video on demand, films can be paused and watched at guests’ convenience, so they are much more likely to pay for the service.”

For more information visit parkplazahotels.net.

Report by Mark Caswell