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Business travel poll 1997: Prestige counts for little

Ideal location or in-room modems, seat size or frequent-flier programmes: what do business travellers value highest in their trips around the world? Garry Marchant pins down the priorities of some top businessmen and asks which hotels and airlines measure up best to their demands.

Business travel poll 1997: Winners in the travel game

Business travel poll 1997: The world's best hotels

Business travel poll 1997: The world's best airlines

When Asian-based bankers travel for work, they really mean business. Most executives select their hotels and airlines by how they will help them perform their jobs. Location, good work facilities and comfort count for more than prestige, gourmet food and snob appeal. Those who can afford the best when travelling on business are specific about what they require.

Jose Antonio Gonzalez, chairman and CEO of Mondragon International Philippines, looks for fast, efficient service when choosing a hotel. "I want accurate room service, a quick response to a request for valet services, and quick relay of faxes," he says. Comfortable, firm beds are essential, and technology also counts with the Manila-based Gonzalez. "I like air-conditioning that can be temperature-controlled and a good voicemail system for messages." His favourite hotels in the region include the Island Shangri-La and the Omni Hong Kong in Hong Kong, and the Hyatt in Singapore.

American hotelier Conrad Hilton once said that the three most important factors in a hotel's success were "location, location, location". In Asia's crowded cities, where horrendous traffic jams make getting around a daily nightmare, location is even more important than in Europe or North America, and is a prime factor in selecting hotels.

Business essentials

Alistair Leckie, director of NatWest Markets in Hong Kong, cites location, degree of comfort and familiarity as his main criteria when booking a hotel. "If rooms are comfortable, and service is efficient, that is high on my ratings," he says. His favourites include the Shangri-La in Jakarta, because it is near to his office and because it provides rapid check-in and check-out facilities. The Shangri-La is one of Leckie's favourite hotel groups.

In Singapore, he uses the Mandarin Oriental even though it is slightly away from the central business district. (Location is somewhat less critical in Singapore, with its orderly traffic.) Leckie also makes an exception for the Grand Hyatt in Seoul, "because the others are so awful". Although the hotel is somewhat out of the way, it is just five or 10 minutes from central Seoul. "You just have to get up a bit earlier," he says.

For Munroe Swirsky, Hong Kong-based chief financial officer for Far East Commodities and Trading, the size of the hotel bedroom and bathroom and cleanliness are important. His favourites are the Sukhothai in Bangkok, The Conrad in Hong Kong and the Grand Hyatt in Singapore. He doesn't prefer any one chain, because he finds that hotels are different in individual countries. "Hyatts are nice, I stay there if I can," says the South African.

Company policy, not the individual, often determines the choice of hotel. Peter Chan, senior vice-president of the Bank of America, says the bank usually determines where he stays. To Chan, a good location (close to his bank's branch) and comfort are all-important. However, he has a personal favourite, for a unique reason. "I like the Hyatts because of their usual four- and five-star quality. But also because of the blankets," he says.

"Most hotels tuck the blankets so tightly around the mattress that you really have to struggle to get into bed," he explains. "The Hyatt makes the beds just like at home. I like that."

Chan's favourite Asian hotels include the Four Seasons in Singapore, because it is businesslike, the Hyatt in Bangkok for its health facilities and the Bangkok Regent because of its general high quality. In Taipei, the Sherwood gets his vote.

Although a Hong Konger, Chan made frequent business visits to the city while living abroad, staying at The Conrad on Hong Kong Island. "I like its modern decor, the light colours and the large bathrooms," he says. And the good health facilities.

The company also usually determines the hotel for Warner Manning, senior manager, planning and research, with the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. "I could decide myself, but my travel services department usually books my hotels," he says. "They tend to put me in the right sort of places."

Manning's choice lodgings are Mandarin Orientals, especially the Jakarta Mandarin, Regents and Hyatts, "because these chains are oriented to business travellers".

For years, hotels have been promoting their business centres as an extra attraction for roving executives. These offer secretarial services, photocopy machines, printers and faxes, as well as computers, typewriters and cellular telephones for rent. Some provide translation and interpretation services, monitors with the latest financial services and stock market reports, even reference libraries.

Business centres get mixed reviews in Asia, and have lost their allure for many travellers. Executives complain that they are expensive, inefficient and unnecessary. In-room faxes and that ubiquitous tool of the modern roving businessman, the laptop computer, have rendered business centres less useful.

Communication via the Internet has become so entrenched that high-tech execs staying in the same hotel will often e-mail each other. E-mail has even rendered in-room faxes less essential. Executives can now type their notes and messages, and e-mail them right from the room, or send reports back to head office to be prepared.

The Hongkong Bank's Manning does look for a hotel with a good business centre, especially for printing capabilities. "I have a mobile PC, a notebook, so frequently I want to use their printers, and also send faxes."

While a hotel should have a business centre, says Paul Jurie, Citibank's director of project finance, he seldom uses them. "They are often not very good, and are usually a rip-off," he complains. The rates for hiring a meeting room or using the secretarial services are "phenomenal". Jurie finds it easier, faster, more efficient and more economical to transmit work back to Hong Kong to be retyped. In fact, most executives condemn high hotel surcharges for business services. "In-room faxes are nice, but are usually too expensive," Jurie says. Like many modern executives, he uses a laptop constantly while travelling, in the hotel room as well as in offices he visits.

Richard Williams, director, global derivatives for Jardine Fleming Broking, also complains about the cost of business centres. "When you use them for photocopying or faxes, you find you have spent a year's budget," he says. "You've brought your presentation and you need to get 60 copies done. Sure, it's a lot of photocopying, but you get a huge bill. It's completely ridiculous." He also complains about the lack of staff for emergency situations. When they do have the staff, they are priced far too high. Like most business travellers, he finds in-room faxes "incredibly convenient".

Executives of large companies visiting their branch offices have little need for business centres. "I don't use secretarial services, because we have offices in almost every location in the world," says Swirsky of Far East Commodities and Trading. "A business centre doesn't mean much to me."

Swirsky relies on a laptop. "With a computer, I can always attach myself to a data line and I am operational. I can fax out, I can receive messages, I can do it all." Despite having communication via e-mail, Swirsky finds in-room faxes essential. "Sometimes I carry the laptop with me during the day, and I have faxes coming in. They are waiting for me in the room when I return."

For a computer-literate executive, a well-equipped hotel room can be its own business centre. "I expect facilities right in my room," says Manning of the Hongkong Bank. "I want a large desk with all the right outlets and adapters there, a telephone and modem socket, and no clutter." Hotels usually put "everything under the sun on the desk", he complains. "Hotels normally provide the right adapters, but you usually have to call for them. They should have them in the room." The Mandarin, Regent and Hyatt hotel chains all rate highly with Manning.

Bank of America's Chan also has no need for a business centre. "Normally we have an office wherever I travel, so I use that." He sometimes uses a laptop, and can fax with it. However, he complains, hotels all charge too much for international calls. While Chan is not yet on the Internet, he plans to get a modem system with his mobile telephone.

Leckie of NatWest Markets finds business centres essential when he is out of the office for long periods, mainly for the fax and photocopy machines. But a business centre must be open 24 hours a day to be useful, he points out. "It is no good if it closes at 9pm, but most hotels are getting better in that respect," says Leckie. And in-room faxes reduce the need for a business centre.

Another innovation to attract business travellers, executive floors or "the hotel within a hotel", meet with widespread approval. "You don't have to mill around in a huge queue downstairs smelling other people's cigarette smoke in the restaurant in the morning," comments Williams of Jardine Fleming. "In the restaurant at breakfast you have to line up for 20 minutes for what should take five. I find breakfast an extremely irritating meal."

Williams stays at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and the Shilla in Seoul. "The Shilla has good service, particularly on the executive floors where they have private breakfast rooms."

When they provide the right services, he really appreciates executive floors. "It depends on whether they just call it an executive floor, or whether it does something." In addition to the breakfast service, rapid check-in and especially check-out are attractive features of these separate floors.

However, Manning of Hongkong Bank finds that if he gets a well-equipped room with sufficient business facilities, executive floors aren't essential, because he uses room service for meals.

Sleep, eat and drink finance

Food and beverage outlets, while often attractive to tourists and local gourmets, only occasionally sway business travellers in their choice of hotels. "A hotel should have a good bar, or be close to bars and the nightlife area," says Citibank's Jurie, who looks for location and overall standards in hotels. His favourites in the region include the Shangri-La in Manila, Sukhothai in Bangkok, the Regent in Jakarta, Mandarin in Hong Kong, the Sherwood in Taipei and the Four Seasons in Tokyo.

He especially likes the restaurants and bars in the Shangri-La hotels. "The Shangri-La's Zoo Bar in Manila is particularly good," says Jurie, who spends about 80% of the year travelling. Bank of America's Chan doesn't care about the hotel's restaurants and bars. "I don't drink," he explains.

Manning also places little value on the quality of the house restaurants, as he prefers to dine somewhere other than the hotel. "A hotel should have a good bar, though, because that is a gathering point," he says. Swirsky usually travels alone, so dines in the room. "When I do go out with colleagues, we dine outside the hotel."

Restaurants and bars are not important to Leckie, either. "I do most of my entertaining outside the hotel, especially if it is in a place I stay in a lot. You get tired of the same restaurants in the hotel."

While restaurants may not count for much, Asia's executives on the move are fitness-conscious. Although they do not always find time to use them, most like access to health clubs and swimming pools.

"Health clubs are great, but a lot of the gyms are not up to standard, so I don't bother with them," says Jurie. "I use outdoor swimming pools, but not the indoor pools." He cites the gym in the Shangri-La Manila as a good one that he does use. Leckie also likes the health centres, although he seldom has time to take advantage of them. "It is important for them to stay open late, because most businessmen can't get to them early," he notes.

Asian hotels generally rate highly among these frequent travellers, except in China. "Hotels in China are generally poor, with the food and service below average," Jurie says. Swirsky finds British hotels more personal and European hotels too formal. Asian hotels are glitzy, but too addicted to rules, he observes. "A bit of persuasion will get you what you want in Europe, but it doesn't happen here."

Williams finds Asian hotels well laid out for business travellers on short stays of one or two days. "In Asian hotels, you check in easily, services are good, and they are efficient, with large numbers of staff."

The vaunted "personal touch" that some hotel chains cultivate, with staff greeting guests by name, impresses some travellers. Williams likes it, if they get it right. "They sometimes get my name wrong, or get the name right, but the company wrong. They always get something weirdly wrong in their database."

Leckie doesn't want or expect hotel staff to greet him by name. "That's just for show. It doesn't mean anything." However, familiarity on another level is useful. "When you have stayed at a hotel before, they know you. They have all of your information on file, so it makes check-in easier," he says. "You can arrive late at night and be in your room in 10 minutes. That's fantastic. Otherwise, it may take you 20 minutes or half an hour."

When choosing an airline, the greatest concerns are safety, convenient scheduling ­ and, for many, seat size and the frequent-flier plan. Executives also use aircraft as offices in the sky.

"Service, age of the aircraft and seat size, all determine the airline I use," says Jurie. The Australian's favourite international airline is Ansett, while regionally he finds Cathay Pacific consistent and reliable. Dragonair is also good.

Safety and the quality of the food are Chan's priorities when choosing an airline. While he uses both Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific, Singapore gets his vote. "It has better food than Cathay Pacific, and good service."

Service and special food

Swirsky cites seat size, service and the age of the aircraft as factors in his choice. He likes Cathay Pacific for frequency of flights and its schedule. "The service is fantastic and the seats comfortable, which is important," he says. Singapore Airlines also wins accolades for its considerate service.

But Swirsky has a pet peeve with flying in Asia. "Their kosher food is the only problem I have with Cathay," he says. "It is pathetic." He finds that problem on all of the Asian airlines, even in first class. "I only get good kosher food when I fly out of Europe or the United States. They fly their kosher food from Europe."

"My wife is vegetarian, and none of these special meals are very good in Asia," Swirsky adds.

British Airways is his favourite airline for the service and especially its kosher food. He travels business class, except when going to China when he travels first. Like most Asian executives, Swirsky is not happy flying in China. "It is frightening, sometimes. Thank goodness the flights are not long. I dread them."

The quality of the on-board staff is especially important. "Sometimes I have had to get on board very quickly without being able to order my kosher food, and the staff have been really good, making me something out of the first-class kitchen. But other crews say 'bad luck, chew on this piece of bread'."

One thing all executives agree on is the importance of flying in the front end of the aircraft. Business class is not just a place to settle back in luxurious seats swirling XO around a crystal snifter or nibbling at the beluga. In business or first class, executives can work during the flight, and they are first off the aircraft and through immigration and customs. That saves considerable time on arrival.

"On business, it is company policy for staff to travel business class," says Leckie of NatWest Markets. "It enables you to work, to prepare for meetings," he points out. "Everybody in the financial markets hits the ground running on business trips. There is no time to recover from an economy class flight." A well-known British Airways advertisement of a few years ago stressed this point.

Williams agrees that "you don't want to find yourself in the back travelling on business. You can survive in economy, but it is irritating. In business class, they are quite good at taking the pain away."

High-quality on-board entertainment is a big plus, especially on long flights when work is completed and there is time to relax. Here, Asian airlines excel.

"Singapore Airlines has 17 video channels and a phone, Cathay has 13 channels," says Williams. "You will find something to do on a long flight." However, he complains, some American airlines have only one channel, and they run out of film. "Equipment is often old and decrepit." And the service is also lacking in finesse. "They don't organise getting the drinks to you after takeoff. They just serve them with the meals." He flies Virgin to the UK. "It is by far the best if you are travelling on business."

For many travellers, access to airport lounges is worth the extra cost of a business-class ticket, perhaps more so in Asia. "Because traffic is so bad here, you have to leave for the airport early," Swirsky explains. "Sometimes, you are lucky and arrive with plenty of time to spare. Then a lounge is really important as a place to rest or even work." Leckie, who travels as much as 180 days a year, finds airport lounges, with their facilities, useful for keeping in touch with the office on a long trip.

Frequent-flier plans receive mixed reviews, from "appalling" to "excellent". Swirsky finds Cathay Pacific's Passages "superb". However, Jurie says: "Cathay Pacific has a shocking frequent-flier programme, but I stick with it because I already have most of my points with them." None of the Asian airlines has good programmes, he complains.

Leckie says: "I hate to admit it but you do plan your itinerary with airlines with which you are associated (with mileage plans), especially when organising a trip in advance." Voicing a frequent complaint about frequent-flier programmes, he admits to experiencing frustrations with the "blackout" periods, and the limited number of seats available on flights. However, Leckie has been able to collect on his points with 36 hours' notice. Safety, reliability and service are the main factors when he flies. Singapore Airlines and Qantas are his favourites, as well as Cathay Pacific, because it has a good network out of Hong Kong.

Despite the perceived glamour of business travel, few executives enjoy being on the road. Gonzalez, whose favourite airlines include Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, doesn't like travelling for business. However, he makes it more bearable by flying business class for flights of less than three hours or first class on longer flights. Business travel is strictly business, but there are ways of making it bearable, and sometimes a pleasant experience.

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