Business travel outlook: Meetings to be shorter, smaller, closer to home

Although planning professionals expect an increase in the number of business meetings next year, they predict them to be shorter, smaller, busier and closer to home, according to a survey recently released by the meetings and events division of American Express.

Among the findings from the questioned meeting planners, buyers and hotel suppliers:

  • 60 percent expect the number of meetings to increase in 2012;
  • 40 percent of hotel suppliers said the number of attendees per meeting will likely decrease;
  • 33 percent predicted the length of meetings will decrease because of a “demand to do more with less,” American Express said;
  • 53 percent of meeting suppliers predicted meetings would be held closer to businesses conducting them in order to cut costs.

Moreover, business travelers increasingly opted for coach over premium seats in October — a move aimed at cutting costs in a tough global economic period, according to the International Air Transport Association.

The number of passengers traveling premium (first and business class) on international flights fell sharply in October, rising only 0.1 percent from the same month last year, against year-on-year growth for September of 6.7 percent, IATA said. 

“We interpret this as being mostly due to business travelers shifting to cheaper seats, since in October economy travel was up 4 percent on last year,” IATA said in its monthly premium traffic monitor. 

Authors of the American Express survey predict the North American meetings market in particular would continue to grow in 2012, as it did this year, and that strong demand for mid-price hotels also would continue. 

“Companies are keen to avoid the perception of excessive spending on events, and many companies are following the pharmaceutical industry’s lead by incorporating a code of compliance that limits the use of five-star properties, or those with certain resort-type amenities” like a golf course or spa, authors of the survey wrote. 

The company also predicted large cities would “still dominate” as the site for North American meetings in 2012 while “second-tier cities remain attractive from a price perspective, they offer fewer facilities to accommodate events and may require additional travel time for attendees.” 

Chris Meyer, vice president of sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said his city — long a popular site for meetings and conventions — in 2011 will experience more a 3- to 4- percent jump in the number of conventions held and a 10-percent jump in delegates attending, a trend he expects will continue in 2012.

One factor is what he called a “rebalancing” between large trade shows and individual meetings, with fewer of the former scheduled in 2012. Industries whose meetings were curtailed by the recession— such as financial services, banking, insurance, automotive and technology — began holding them again in late 2009, a trend he said picked up in 2010, was “very, very strong” in 2011, and is expected to continue next year.

Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, called the American Express forecast “good news for destinations that have the right mix of affordable air fares and hotels with available rooms and meeting facilities. It’s a sign of optimism about the economy and business in general, because meetings are one of the first things to be cut when business conditions are bad and one of the last things to be restored as business conditions improve.”

However, he said American Express’ findings also indicate that companies holding meetings and conventions “are not opening the water faucet to full blast in terms of spending and the number of people attending and what they can do.”

American Express’ bullish forecast for large cities “bodes well” for destinations like New York, San Francisco and Miami, and cities with major airline hubs like Atlanta, Chicago and Houston, Harteveldt added.

He warned, though, that meeting planners likely will book hotels closer to the date they will occur, which could mean for the “regular traveler that the hotel you thought would be available could get booked up.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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