Car rental companies, too, are wooing executives with higher service standards. Avis, for instance, is eliminating the need to queue and the lengthy process of repeating personal details each time a car is rented by giving frequent renters a "VIP service" called Avis Express. The privileged can turn up at exclusive Avis Express booths located at major UK airports, hand over the Avis Express card which holds routine rental information and, hopefully, within minutes drive a car away from a special priority bay. The company, which has invested $1 billion in its "Wizard" computer system to store all personal rental information, is also introducing a rapid self-return service to the UK. After keying in mileage and fuel gauge readings, a printed record of charges is produced in 60 seconds and the busy executive can then, ideally, be on his or her way.
Other schemes use free mobile telephones to lure business travellers. Hertz "Super Shuttle Drive" and "Executive Connection" customers, for instance, pay no telephone rental - only call charges and VAT. The mobile phone can even be picked up before boarding a train if a car is to be rented at the other end. In addition, computerised driving directions are available in eight languages at major airports and train stations. The self-service computer prints out step-by-step directions, the estimated distance and driving time. However, the free tank of petrol, thrown in with every executive car rental, has recently been withdrawn because it was believed to be of little perceived value to those who only used half a tank.
Instead the emphasis is now on offering an integrated service. Hertz has teamed up with British Rail and British Airways so that car rental can be purchased at the same time as train or airline tickets. Likewise, British Midland is forging a partnership with Avis under the "Flying Start" banner. Frequent users are rewarded with free rental - four air and car packages, for instance, earn a complimentary weekend car hire in Europe and 16 qualifies for two free weeks.
A chauffeur service is another option for those wanting the ultimate in luxury and convenience - or to use as a mobile conference room. A 40-mile or less trip to London's Heathrow in a luxury saloon car driven by a uniformed Kenning chauffeur costs a basic £38, whereas an eight-hour and 100-mile journey outside the London area starts at £185 for a Daimler limousine. Hertz has a fleet of Mercedes, Jaguars and Rolls-Royces available at a basic four-hour rate of around £100. But with a mileage allowance of only 50 miles and each additional mile costing over £1, costs can soon mount.
But aside from convenience, what is the most cost-effective way of getting around the UK? Car rental operators have a maze of different charges, schemes and confusing price structures. At Heathrow airport, costs range from around £30 a day with Thrifty to £100 with Avis for a Ford Sierra or Group C equivalent. Away from Heathrow car rental is cheaper, with all-inclusive business packages available for under £50 a day.
Although executive car rental may well be a more economical alternative to company cars, business travel by road has its limitations. BR has been quick to seize upon these. "The ever declining state of our rods gives us great hope for the future," says Sherman. "For 75 miles to 250 miles from London we have the best to offer. We clearly dominate northern England routes and no one can beat us on the Coventry to Birmingham half-hour service," he claims with confidence.
Transport to Scotland, he admits, is "different". With first class rail fares to Glasgow and Edinburgh costing £162 and the journey from London taking upwards of four hours compared with the one hour and 15 minute service by air for just £22 more, airlines clearly hold the competitive edge. British Midland's three-day executive fare, which gives a £30 saving on the full air fare, is actually cheaper than a first class ticket for longer journeys on the train. "And our food is inclusive in the price," adds British Midland's sales and marketing director, David Perkins.
But the Channel tunnel, due for completion in 1993, is likely to test airlines' domination of short-haul hops to Europe. Travelling time by train to Paris will be cut to three hours and to Brussels two hours and 40 minutes. Fares will be "market oriented", "reflecting the level of fares at that time", says BR's Channel tunnel project external affairs manager, Alan Dunlop. With a check-in time of 15 minutes, telephones in the trains and the ability to work at seats, Dunlop claims that it will offer a "fine product" for the business traveller. Air travel may soon no longer be the first choice for an executive in a hurry, provided that he or she does not suffer from claustrophobia.
(Sara Pennington is a freelance journalist.)