Travelling for work used to mean splashing the cash, but business priorities have changed, says Jeff Mills.
In the dark and distant pre-computer days, you could tell when one of your colleagues was about to embark on a business trip if they were seen poring over one of two huge tomes normally kept in the cupboard that served as the office library.
Before the internet, the ABC World Airways Guide was the volume that business travellers or their travel agents turned to – a chunky monthly publication that had started life as a rail timetable, not unlike the Bradshaw’s Guide much loved by Michael Portillo in his Great British Railway Journeys TV series. It was a definitive guide to each and every scheduled flight anywhere in the world, but not the sort of thing you’d want to carry around with you.
The other opus was the Official Airline Guide, originally a US guide which was later bought by the UK publishers of the ABC, which it was merged with.
Having checked flights to the destination required, travellers often then passed on the tedious process of booking them, either to their assistant, if they were senior enough to have one, or, if company policy so dictated, to a business travel agent.
Just as today, justifications for business class travel included productivity and seniority, but then there was also public perception. In those days, some organisations thought that flying their employees in premium cabins was important for maintaining the company’s image. It would not do for your contacts to see you or your colleagues flying in economy. That was the class for tourists, not for serious business travellers.
The same was true when it came to the journey to the airport. It was pretty well unheard of for even mid-level executives to be expected to take the tube to Heathrow or the train to Gatwick. A company’s chairman, chief executive and board members would almost certainly have had access to chauffeur-driven cars, and the same was true of hotels.
If you were senior, you stayed in what was perceived to be the best hotel in town, a place suitable to meet and entertain your equally high-powered contacts or clients for lunch or dinner. Eyebrows would be raised if the boss were to be booked into a cheaper alternative. There were no marks for saving money.
IN THE CHEAP SEATS
Fast-forward to 2019, and much has changed. Airline timetables are now easily accessible via a smartphone or computer. If you are flying on business within Europe, you are likely to be seeking out no-frills, low-cost options. Forget business class on short-haul flights – you are now lucky if your company will allow you to pay a few pounds extra to pre-book your seat or check in a bag.
As for long haul, you may end up taking indirect flights to stay in business class, or fly premium economy direct, if your travel policy allows. Much of this is down to cost, as is the choice of hotel at the other end, but public perceptions have also flipped completely.
When the economic crunch came, many companies put a block on employees staying in five-star hotels, even if it was still within budget. They didn’t want the negative headlines, especially if a big meeting or corporate retreat was planned. It even led to some well-known hotel brands dropping the word “luxury” from their names. What once was a proud boast became a liability.
Business travellers can take solace from the fact that overseas contacts are likely to be working under similar restraints. In China, the ban on conspicuous spending remains, albeit because of political pressure. And even in the US or Europe, it’s a brave company that is prepared to be seen splashing the cash on its employees’ travel. Chatting about how the hotel you are staying in is frugal yet efficient and has all the facilities you need – and besides, you only use it as somewhere to sleep – will often occupy the first few minutes of any meeting. They may even applaud the good business sense you are demonstrating – whether by choice or not – or at least commiserate with you from shared experience.
Look on the bright side. If you are dining outside of the hotel, maybe the money saved can be spent on an upgraded bottle of wine. You might need a decent drink to get over that long-haul economy flight.
Jeff Mills has been a travel reporter and editor for more than 30 years.