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Business travelers bringing families on the road

Combining business and leisure trips, or “blended travel” in which business travelers bring along a friend or family members, has gained momentum in recent years, some industry experts say.
/ Source: contributor

When Gary E. Hayes goes on business trips, he often encourages his wife and 13-year-old daughter to join him.

“Any opportunity to maximize family time together as well as to do something interesting, that’s the goal,” said Hayes, managing partner of Hayes, Brunswick & Partners, a leadership consulting firm in Bronxville, N.Y. He recently spent time in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston with his family after doing business.

“For us, it’s more about sharing time and sharing experiences together,” he said. “I think it is very helpful for a family to see something of each other’s world.”

Combining business and leisure trips, or “blended travel” in which business travelers bring along a friend or family members, has gained momentum in recent years, some industry experts say.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the Meredith Corporation, the publisher of Family Circle magazine, found that of readers who travel for work, 77 percent took along a family member or significant other on their last business trip, and 47 percent do so the majority of the time.

“To me, it was a startling result,” said Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University, and a consultant for the survey.

In addition, 64 percent of readers added one or more extra days to their last trip.

More money, less time
Earlier studies indicate a consistent trend. A 2008 survey by Egencia, the corporate travel arm of Expedia, found that 59 percent of business travelers were joined by friends or family on work trips. A 2004 National Business Travel Association survey drew similar results.

Hanson said research beginning more than 10 years ago revealed that the trend to combine business and leisure travel began when the number of dual career families increased. “All of a sudden, there was more money but less time,” he said. Blended travel became a “way for families to spend time together.”

Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, based in New York, said she’s seen an increased focus on planning family time in recent years. “When it’s gone, it is not renewable,” she said, adding that more people are creating five-year travel plans, in much the same way they do financial planning.

Nancy London, Global Brand Leader for Westin Hotels & Resorts, said “as companies scale back, and there are less people, some business travelers need to do more travel.” As a result, it is increasingly important to spend family time. “Blended travel is an easy way for making it happen,” she said, noting Westin recently launched a free night promotion.

A new “Wellness in Travel” survey commissioned by Westin, to be released Tuesday, found that more than half of the 1,500 respondents failed to take all their vacation days. “They worry about losing their jobs,” London said. According to the survey, 64 percent canceled or postponed vacation this year due to work worries.

Blended travel can sometimes save money for travelers as well as companies, said Michael Steiner, executive vice president for Ovation Corporate Travel in New York.

For example, employees can often take advantage of corporate discounts. One client whose corporate travel policy allows him to fly business class recently saved his company money when he decided to sail with his wife on the Queen Mary to London instead. Fare for two was less expensive than one business class ticket, said Steiner, whose family tacks vacations on to business trips about three times a year. “I travel so much, when I’m going to a really cool destination, I think to myself, ‘How can I get them over?’ It saves time and money. And I don’t lose a day or two traveling.”

Combining business and pleasure
The national hotel occupancy rate dropped during the recent recession, to 54.6 percent in 2009, according to STR, a hotel research company. “It was — by far — the worst occupancy rate of the decade,” said Jeff Higley, a spokesman.

Hotels eager to attract guests are taking note, creating new incentives geared to court business travelers and their families.

“We’re doing more and more to program our properties to be leisure destinations,” said Richard Maradik, chief marketing officer of Gaylord Entertainment, owners of four large resort hotels and convention centers in or near Nashville, Tenn., Orlando, Fla., Dallas and Washington, D.C., where 80 percent of business comes from meetings and conventions. In the last two years, even in the down economy, more people extended stays after group business visits, he said.

“Our research clearly shows us, and our customers clearly tell us, that time is money and they want as much as possible,” Maradik said. “A wonderful room, a wonderful restaurant and wonderful amenities are great, but it’s not enough. What customers really want now is to experience something unique.” Seasonal programs in November and December, for example, feature spectacular ice attractions, character breakfasts, and holiday lights that “create an immersive holiday experience,” he said.

At Great Wolf Resorts, which operates 12 resorts in North America that feature indoor water parks and meeting space, leisure travel prompted more business travel.

When its first properties opened more than 10 years ago, the focus was on leisure travel, said Steve Shattuck, director of communications. But the company observed that rooms were being booked regularly by families midweek, often when meeting spaces were utilized simultaneously. “One parent would be at a meeting while the other would be playing with the family in the water,” Shattuck said. “It’s the business trip that does double duty.” As a result, the company increased its meeting and convention space at some properties, and in all newly built ones.

“We take our families seriously,” said Jonathan Critchard, general manager of the Athenaeum in London. The hotel recently introduced a number of family-focused features: free meals for children 12 and under, complimentary snacks and soft drinks from the mini bar, and a kids’ concierge (who gets in touch with guests before arrival to see what can be arranged to make the children’s stay extra special).

The hotel has long been family-friendly, but “we just wanted to take it up a notch,” Critchard said. And it worked. In the last year there has been a significant jump — up 30 percent from the previous year — in the number of family guests, he said.

Not too long ago, welcoming children at a business-oriented hotel would have been unheard of. Now? “It’s all about embracing families and children,” Critchard said. “They are our future, at the end of the day. People may think a five-star hotel is not the place to go. But actually, it’s the place to come. We are so geared for it.”