UK: BUSINESS TRAVEL - FEEL SAFE, WILL TRAVEL. - More and more business travellers are women. So why do they have so many horror stories to relate?

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

More and more business travellers are women. So why do they have so many horror stories to relate?

Back in the good old days, business travellers were real men who drove fast, powerful cars which spewed out intelligence-stunting levels of lead. When they got to their hotels, they headed straight for the bar and drank deeply. Dinner would comprise thick slabs of artery-unfriendly red meat washed down with plenty of claret. Afterwards, the brandy and cigars were broken out and dubious jokes traded into the small hours.

Naturally enough, women played no part in this tableau - after all, the then correct way to address any female in business was 'Miss (insert name here), please take a letter'. And any women who were found skulking around the hotel premises were bound to be either wives, hotel staff members, or that special type of companion who costs considerably more than the price of a meal for two.

Nowadays life is considerably less fun for the WASPy male. Lunchtime drinking, dumping chemicals in rivers and sexist jokes in the office - all these once robust activities now raise eyebrows, if not lawsuits.

And, as for travelling on business grounds, well - surprise, surprise - these days women do it just like men.

A straw poll of seasoned women travellers suggests that, behind the lip service paid by most hotel chains to providing a female-friendly service, the reality can be somewhat different; it reveals a series of travel tales ranging from the simply rude to the downright dangerous. One businesswoman says of a hotel in Portugal: 'I woke to find a man staring at me in bed at four in the morning. I screamed and he left. The concierge took his time coming up; by the time he arrived, the man had left, but not before using my bathroom on the way out. The fact that the door had no chain and was difficult to close properly didn't help.' Another recalls returning to her room in Turkey to find the (male) cleaner somehow believed his duties to include draping her underwear all over the room, having removed it from a closed suitcase.

On home ground, such incidents are less dramatic but nonetheless worrying or at the very least irritating to the female of the species: tales range from men and women alike being told to take their room keys (and any other keys they fancy, presumably) from a rack behind an unattended reception desk to reports of women feeling they are 'more or less totally ignored at the bar'.

The difficulties confronting female business travellers divide broadly into two camps. The first and the most commonly experienced are those that can occur anywhere and are usually a result of the hotel not taking guests' needs into consideration. These range from the mundane but annoying - try putting a skirt in a trouser press - to the potentially dangerous such as poorly lit parking areas and insecure accommodation.

Unsurprisingly, such security worries were the paramount concern for those women who responded to a survey conducted by Expotel, a hotel reservations company, with 84% of those questioned regarding a well-lit car park as essential. Other security measures such as peepholes on doors or a 24-hour door service were considered either essential or useful by the vast majority of respondents. The survey concluded that hotels often allocate women rooms unthinkingly - way out at the end of a long corridor, for example, where, should trouble arise, help could be a long time coming.

The survey also showed that many hotel chains are also falling down when it comes to making female visitors feel socially comfortable rather than merely physically safe: nearly half the respondents said they always or regularly choose to take room service rather than dine in hotel restaurants, and as proof, if it is needed, that bars have a lot to learn in the way of female friendliness, a mere 2% said that they are never uncomfortable in hotel bars. In-room facilities such as hair-dryers, adequate mirrors, ironing boards and skirt hangers - or rather the lack of them - also proved to have immense irritation potential.

On the back of a similar survey undertaken several years earlier, Expotel began its Woman Aware scheme which asks customers who have made use of its booking service to fill out appraisal cards rating the hotels in which they stayed. Based on the customers' responses, those hotels which are reckoned to cater particularly well for women are accorded Woman Aware status, allowing customers to specify that they want these hotels when making a booking.

Of course, most of the major chains do make some effort to tailor services to the female traveller. Forte, for instance, used to run the rather saccharine-sounding Ladycrest programme, which offered guests lighter, airier and less anonymously furnished accommodation than elsewhere in their establishments.

Interestingly, the popularity of Ladycrest rooms was not confined to the fair sex: Forte found that men would often request them in preference to normal rooms. Says Forte's Jackie Butcher, 'Many other rooms were then upgraded to this standard'.

Holiday Inn likewise has a programme entitled Lady Business Traveller, a scheme which is based around 10 standards to which all UK Holiday Inns must adhere. Among these are the request screening of calls, a policy of room service leaving the door ajar when serving female guests and the escorting of women to their cars. 'Numbers of female business travellers are increasing; women should make up 50% of business travellers by the year 2000,' explains Mark Lyndon, sales manager at Manchester's Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza. 'Our policy is mainly geared to wards security. Women don't want to be patronised, so they're treated as equals, with certain discretions. Room numbers aren't divulged and women are given a priority choice of room.' Lady Business Traveller also includes the availability of 'helpful extras' such as ironing boards and the provision of a broad range of reading matter.

While better security and an overall appreciation of women's needs may be the answer to most domestic difficulties, foreign travel presents the itinerant businesswoman with a second set of problems which are often far trickier to overcome as they are frequently rooted in the culture of the country in question. An obvious place to look for trouble here is the Arab world, where a businesswoman is sometimes afforded the status of 'honorary man', so unused are her hosts to women doing anything other than cooking and bearing children. One female traveller, for example, tells of an area being specially curtained off for her in a Gulf hotel so that she would be able, at least occasionally, to vary room service with the restarant during the course of her long stay in town.

The incentive for hotel chains to continue shaping up is that, as Lyndon points out, an ever-increasing proportion of total business travellers are female. Indeed, in the US, professional women already outnumber their male counterparts. Fifteen years ago, hotel chains might have been able to brush aside the needs of the businesswoman, or address them cosmetically with the feminine trinity of flowers, perfume and pastel colour schemes; nowadays relying on such an old-hat solution means running the risk that these most mobile of clients vote with their feet.

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