If the '80s was the greedy decade, says Robert Collier, the '90s will be the careful one. Business travellers are far more cost-conscious now and more inclined to ask themselves whether their trip is really necessary. If it is they will ask whether perhaps it can be done in fewer days.
Collier, senior vice-president (strategic marketing) for the Inter-Continental Hotels Group, has done a massive number-crunching exercise on business travellers. His analysis suggests that the average frequent traveller is in his early 40s, usually in management with a strong bias towards sales and marketing. He works for a multinational company with a large number of employees and is extremely well paid. He makes about 10 trips a year and generally clocks up about 55 nights away from home. "We think that there are probably no more than 2 or 3 million of these animals around the world," says Collier.
His market research exercise, Project Argonaut, showed that those interviewed had two top priorities - efficiency and (modest) luxury. Efficiency, which respondents raked as their first priority, boils down to a remarkably simple checklist of items, says Collier: "Basically, to our core customers it is: check in quickly, check out quickly, messages with certainty, direct dial telephone with certainty and laundry that never gets lost."
The second key priority is luxury. Guests still want it, but they want "(appropriate luxury)". They do not want anything too indulgent or too expensive. Not unnaturally, Collier feels that Inter-Continental itself falls cleanly into this category. In motor car terms, he suggests, it is a Mercedes. Rolls Royces are perhaps more luxurious, but also just a bit over the top - and certainly more expensive.
An important question for the hotel industry and nobody yet knows the answer - is whether these changing attitudes are permanent, or simply a reaction to the recession which will go into reverse when the good times return. The travel industry has in many ways been a remarkably accurate barometer of the fluctuations in economic conditions around the world - and nowhere more so than in the UK where the predominant reading over the past couple of years has been "dismal".
Jonathan Bodlender, chairman of the hotel consultants Horwath Consulting, who has chartered the fortunes of the hotel industry over many years, says, "The first three months of 1992 have to be better than the first three months of 1991 because however low the occupancy is ... if they only have 19 people in the place it's probably 18 more than they had in the first three months of 1991."
The recession had already triggered a downward trend in autumn 1990 but that was hugely magnified by the Gulf war. "Occupancy was pretty poor across the whole country," says Bodlender. "London felt the UK recession as things like national conventions and trade shows tailed off and as people like theatre-goers who might previously have stayed over night stayed at home instead." But there will be a recovery, he says cautiously: "Having really gone bang, right down, the only way to go is up."
What last year's very low occupancy rates meant, of course, was that hotel rooms, particularly in London, could be had for a song. Hotels were not just offering corporate discounts to business travellers, but discounts on discounts. There were and are exceptions.
Some luxury hotels do not like discounting, not lest because it is difficult to bring prices back to realistic levels when the market improves. They have not escaped recessionary pressures but instead of price cutting have taken the alternative route of adding value. As Giles Shepard, MD of London's Savoy says: "It's much better to preserve the normal price but at the same time add no extras ... such as a chauffeur-driven car to or from the airport or a voucher for a sum of money which can be spent in the hotels or restaurants on food and drink or even telephone calls or fax costs."
London is and always has been a popular destination with business travellers but how, objectively, does it rank against other capital cities in the facilities it offers? Many observers would say it still has a long way to go before it matches the US. In America during the '80s the supply of hotel rooms grew at twice the rate of the demand for them. The customer was king. Every outlet tried to outdo its neighbour in terms of facilities. Not so in this country.
"Because London hasn't had a lot of new hotels until comparatively recently," says Collier of Inter-Continental, "there's been less pressure to innovate and to anticipate guests' needs than in , say, Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. The situation in the US has become so much more competitive because there's so much new product there." He thinks the UK hotel industry has still got some way to go in terms of listening to the consumer.
In the 1990s the people to listen to are the business travellers who now account for about two-thirds of the custom of most leading hotels. There is constant experimentation in an effort to tailor facilities to their needs, particularly, as one might expect, in America where, for example, hotels within hotels (complete floors or even wings to which only executives with the correct security card have access) are becoming commonplace. And nearly all the big chains operate the hoteliers' equivalent of frequent-flier programmes, rewarding loyal customers with special facilities or special room rates or both.
The latest innovation is what amounts to a customised information technology service. Big hotels often have a business centre which can be used by any guest for a fee (or as a frequent traveller's perk) but now some are developing clever variations on that theme. The Irish-owned Copthorne Hotels, for example, has opened what it claims to be the first "dedicated" business apartments in its hotels. These are individual apartments next door to the bedroom, equipped with everything from personal computers to fax machines. Eoin Dillon, a director of Copthorne and general manager of the Copthorne's flagship hotel the London Tara, where the first apartments were tried out, says the idea is now being extended to one of the group's hotels near Charles de Gaulle airport.
Inter-Continental has been bitten by the IT bug too. The group is experimenting with an IT-trolley, a trolley which can be loaded up with whatever electronics equipment the guest needs and delivered to his room. That way, it is suggested, you have the benefits of information technology on tap, but still manages to keep the bedroom what the guest really wants - a place of sanctuary and relaxation.