June 28, 2022 | In the News

Why Some People Are Driving 7 Hours to Business Meetings

This summer’s air-travel disruptions are leading some business travelers to change plans and hit the road.

As the nation’s travel system strains under staffing shortages, cancellations and Covid-19 absences, some frustrated professionals are opting to drive instead of fly for work trips, booking companies and travelers say. Meeting and conference organizers say they’re changing schedules to account for flight delays, for example putting keynote speakers on the second or third day of events, rather than the opening sessions.

Neuroscientist Tamara Stawicki drove about six hours from Easton, Pa., to Montreal for the International Zebrafish conference earlier this month. She usually doesn’t like driving long distances, but says she made the decision in part after a missed flight connection earlier this year forced her to drive in California from Los Angeles to Fresno in the middle of the night. “If I just drive it, I know I can leave when I want to leave, I know I’m going to get there,” says Dr. Stawicki, who teaches at Lafayette College.

Road trips are one way companies and business travelers are changing to reduce the potential for disruptions. Managers are also approving more expensive nonstop itineraries, encouraging employees to take early-morning flights or to travel the day before important meetings to avoid missing them, say booking companies and travelers.

Delayed and canceled flights have been edging higher in recent weeks. About 2.9% of U.S. domestic flights were canceled in June through June 23, compared with about 2.1% during the same period of 2019, or about 2,100 more canceled flights, according to data from Cirium, an aviation analytics company.

Eighty-nine percent of business travelers reported having to take unexpected steps recently because of difficulty booking transportation and lodging for business travel, according to an April survey of 1,000 U.S. business travelers from travel and expense software provider SAP Concur. Travelers reported canceling or rescheduling meetings and spending additional unplanned days on the road, according to the survey.

As workplaces reopen more fully, companies and business professionals are eager to visit clients, attend conferences and reconnect with colleagues who have been working remotely. In some cases, travelers have missed the beginning of conferences or switched to virtual formats last-minute due to flight problems and Covid-19 infections.

Mira Sirotic missed the beginning of a biotechnology conference in San Diego earlier this month.

The 49-year-old director of investor relations at a biosciences company lives in Toronto. She was supposed to fly to Vancouver and then onto San Diego. A canceled flight and problems booking on a new one meant she had to fly to Los Angeles and then drive the rest of the way in a rental car.

She missed a networking event, though eventually made it to the conference. She booked direct flights for a San Francisco conference this week.

“If you can find a direct flight, it’s worth it,” she says. “You never know where you’re going to end up.”

Travel Incorporated, a Georgia based travel management company, says its hundreds of clients have typically suggested employees drive when destinations are under three or four hours away. This summer, some of those clients are giving employees the option and time to drive if the location is up to five to seven hours away, says Tracie Carillo, senior vice president of business development and marketing.

“They can take the chance or they can know that they’re going to get there,” she says.

Compounding the impact of the delays and cancellations are the high cost of hotels, airfare, gas and food. To economize, some companies are encouraging staff to schedule multiple meetings during a trip or make stops in different cities.

Delray Beach, Fla., corporate event planner Paragon Events now includes costs associated with flight cancellations and delays in client budget proposals. These costs are placed in a contingency line and if the customer doesn’t need it, the company says it won’t bill for it.

The company recently planned a 150-person trip to the Caribbean, with guests flying in from all over the world. Nearly 20 flights were canceled or needed to be rebooked, affecting 15% of attendees, says Renee Radabaugh, the company’s president and CEO. Ms. Radabaugh’s team figured out hotel accommodations for those who were delayed, and three staff members worked the phones past 2 a.m. to make sure people weren’t stranded, she says.

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Staffing shortages at hotels and other event spaces are also affecting conference travel, says Katie O’Keefe, vice president of operations for Global Event Management. In the past, Ms. O’Keefe booked meetings with a hotel’s director of sales, who then passed off on-site organizing to other staff. For a recent event, the hotel’s director of sales carried out the entire planning process and was on-site with banquet and hotel staff during the event.

“They have all these responsibilities that really aren’t within their job role,” she says. Organizers are still including or planning for virtual or hybrid programming in events, not only for Covid reasons, but also in case attendees don’t make it, says Cate Banfield, vice president of experience and event solutions for BCD Meetings and Events unit the Collective.

“There needs to be a plan B and C for business travel meeting organizers, like never before,” says Suzanne Neufang, chief executive of the Global Business Travel Association.

Farokh Karani is a 42-year-old partner manager in cybersecurity who is based in Boston. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., he tried to get on an earlier flight home after wrapping up his meetings as he had regularly done in the past. He joined a standby list with 20 others, and says only two people made it onto an earlier flight.

“That’s my time wasted, that’s less time I’m at home with my kids,” he says. “I’d rather be done at three and just drive.”

He is now resolving to drive for most of his corporate trips on the East Coast.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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