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September is the traditional kick-off to the business travel season. Summer holidays are over. Kids are back in school. Airports, aeroplanes and hotel lobbies are once again the rightful domain of the road warrior.
Autumn is peak season for trade shows and conferences. It’s also the time when salespeople hit the roads and skies to seek out new customers and maintain relationships with old ones. Despite recent quivers in world financial markets, most travel industry executives I interviewed for this video produced at the recent Global Business Travel Association Conference in Denver expect a very busy business travel season.
Here’s what frequent travellers can expect in coming months:
Airfares should remain mostly flat for the remainder of the year because there are two opposing forces at work. First, slightly lower fuel costs have placated airlines (crude is now about $80 per barrel versus $100 in June), which should keep fares from making dramatic jumps. Also, airlines are hesitant to raise fares too much as long as the global economy remains fragile. On the other hand, airlines in the US and Europe continue to reduce capacity even though demand remains steady, which is putting upward pressure on fares. Net result: airfares should not rise or fall too much in coming months barring a spike in fuel costs or economic collapse. For travellers who drive more than fly, lower oil prices should also help keep trip costs in check.
When it comes to hotels, beware of rate spikes in major cities during trade shows, conventions or expositions this autumn. Despite uncertainty in world financial markets, business travel has made a strong recovery from the dark days of 2008-2009 when companies drastically cut travel budgets and forbade travel to meetings and conventions. The expression of that pent-up demand means more group travel and higher demand is pushing up hotel rates — dramatically in some cases.
For example, last week my hometown of San Francisco hosted nearly 35,000 attendees at the annual Dreamforce cloud-computing conference, which maxed out hotel room inventory throughout the region. Rates at three- or four-star hotels that typically go for about $200 per night fetched more than $400 for those lucky enough to get a booking. Restaurants reservations were impossible. Hailing a cab took hours. The similarly massive OpenWorld conference is coming to San Francisco in early October.
The same thing happens during Frankfurt’s huge International Motor Show in September, which draws in about 300,000 trade visitors. The World Travel Market in London in November hosts nearly 50,000 attendees and the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas draws nearly 150,000 each January.
The lesson here is to avoid travelling to destinations when they are hosting large citywide events if that’s not the reason for your visit. When shopping for hotels this autumn, if you encounter what seem to be astronomic rates, call the hotel or local convention and visitors’ bureau and ask if there’s a large convention in town at the same time.
If your plans are flexible, book your trip when there are not any major events in town. You’ll likely find lower hotel rates, fewer waits for cabs or restaurants, shorter lines at airports, lower airfares — and best of all, less stressful, more productive business trips.
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel