Is upscale business travel back?
The new British Airways First suite, with electronic blinds and ambient light.
After the global economy fell into a tailspin in 2009, most companies tightened their purse strings when it came to business travel. Management required additional approval levels for trips, and travellers flew coach, stayed at moderately-priced hotels, rented compact cars and teleconferenced when it made sense.
But as luxury hotels experience spikes in both rate and demand, there's increasing evidence that business travellers are returning to the front of the plane and to their favourite upscale hotels.
"Officially, business class flying is still banned at our company. But unofficially, I'm seeing a lot more authorizations for exceptions to this rule approved by the top brass," said a Fortune 500 company corporate travel manager who requested anonymity. Several other managers I've spoken with over the last month have said more or less the same thing.
Last week, I spoke at a conference at the super-luxe, five-star Resort At Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, California. (This area was ground zero for the well-known AIG effect, when US bankers who'd just accepted a government bailout participated in what appeared to be a boondoggle that forced companies everywhere to cease most upscale meeting and incentive trips.)
In addition to the shiny Lamborghinis and Range Rovers sparkling in the southern California sun by the resort's porte cochere, the hotel was buzzing with activity. The front desk clerk said the entire 332-unit, $600-per-night resort was sold out... on a Monday night (as it is through much of April)!
Luxury hotel brands are once again coaxing back business travellers with upscale offerings. In London, both The Savoy and The Four Seasons London at Park Lane recently re-opened their doors after being shut during the downturn for complete overhauls. The lowest rates at both run between $600 to $700 per night in April. The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong is trumpeting its 29 March opening as "the world's tallest hotel", with introductory rates in the $500 per night range.
The same phenomenon is creeping back into the airline business, too. This month Lufthansa unabashedly trotted out plans for a new first class cabin on board 10 of its Boeing 747-400s. The new concept offers first class passengers a seat and a separate, full-length, lie-flat bed. While fares for the new service have not been announced, current first class fares between New York and Frankfurt range from $12,000 to $15,000 roundtrip.
Lufthansa's upgrade comes a few months after British Airway's recent revamp. The airline's rich new First product now offers special touches like electronically controlled window blinds and a personal wardrobe for hanging clothes. As the product rolls out across BA's fleet, the only route it's guaranteed on is the business-travel heavy New York-London Heathrow route. BA's first class fares on the route run about $10,000 round trip.
What about you? Have you noticed any official or unofficial loosening of business travel purse strings at your company? Is posh business travel making a comeback? Or not? Share your thoughts on Facebook.
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC.com