US President Barack Obama has been seen across the news networks recently, talking up the economy and citing record job gains. Opponents of course point to figures that tell a different story. But pundits and politicians aside, an overall upward trend appears to be reflected in US business travel.

 

Staggering numbers in US Business travel

The latest Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) report anticipates a year-on-year rise of nearly 7% in US business travel spend in 2014, topping $292bn.

GBTA chief executive Mike McCormick says the forecast of 8.6% growth in group and meetings travel – higher than the overall figure of 6.8% – reflects a return of corporate confidence. But he says growth brings challenges for buyers, when it’s accompanied by rising prices.

The GBTA/Carlson Wagonlit 2015 price forecast puts US airfares up 2.5% and hotel rates up 3.5% – both higher than in Europe. Consolidation of US airlines is a major factor. “Nine airlines are now down to three, plus Southwest,” says McCormick, referring to a decade of mergers, including United/Continental and American/US Airways.

Greg Treasure, president of HRG North America, agrees airline consolidation is a major challenge. “It puts far more complexity around deal structures,” he says. Add to this lack of spare capacity making it harder to get seats, never mind discounts.

Greeley Koch is executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE). He notes the rise in business traveller-centricity in corporate policy. “It is changing the role of the business travel manager in the US…. the role is evolving from that of an expense management watchdog to a business travel facilitator, whose purpose is to assist the business traveller in meeting the corporate objective. That objective – increased sales and revenue – is beginning to supersede expense enforcement issues.”

Effectively managing and analysing data is a critical issue for US travel buyers. The business travel manager for energy giant Halliburton says pre-trip data is “imperative” – and the best source for “actionable” information. This is shared with the firm’s security providers, and its quality and veracity constantly audited.

GBTA chief executive Mike McCormick says the forecast of 8.6% growth in group and meetings travel – higher than the overall figure of 6.8% – reflects a return of corporate confidence

Hand-in-hand with data is duty-of-care: buyers, travel management companies and suppliers are citing risk management as a major issue in a country that’s seeing growing globalisation – businesses that have long been sustained by the vast US domestic market are increasingly looking beyond its borders. On the topic of risk, HRG’s Treasure raises another concern. The US leads the way in adoption of automated online booking processes – HRG’s latest figures show a 56% online adoption rate for North America, well ahead of the global average of 42%. “It’s great from client point of view – until we get things like weather disruptions,” says Treasure. “Last winter we had something like 16 major storms in the US, lots of cancelled flights.” He says service providers need to ensure they have the manpower to deal with unpredictable situations.

 

Business travel: the last word on the state of play

The US market tends to lead the way in business travel trends – so are the coming years likely to bring? Last word goes to ACTE’s Koch. “Technology remains one of the most significant forces, now and in the future,” he says.

“In years past, huge corporations dictated the direction of technology. Now, much smaller corporate entities are able to introduce products and services that cater to niche customers within the business travel sector” – products, he says, that can go from conception to market in a fraction of the time it used to take.