Gizmos let business travelers stay close to their worries Those techno-tools you can snuggle up to in hotel, plane, cab

January 02, 1996|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A funny thing has happened to business travel: It's beginning to feel as if you've never left the office.

From the back seat of a taxicab or from 35,000 feet aloft, you can check your E-mail, file a report, cancel your flight reservation, book a hotel, update your expenses and phone home.

The once-clear line between "The Business Trip" and "A Day in the Office" has become increasingly blurred, thanks to such tools as the laptop computer, advanced messaging systems and software that does everything but kick the cat and take out the garbage.

And technology developers suggest that line may one day disappear as emerging products such as portable tTC video-conferencing, advanced voice mail and automated booking systems become part of the road show.

"The whole world of travel management and travel planning is going through a metamorphosis, an unmistakable paradigm shift," says John Shoolery, founder of TravelNet Inc., a California software firm that develops corporate travel technology.

"The process of delivering travel products is being re-engineered from the ground up, and all the major players are involved -- the credit card companies, travel agencies, airlines," he says. "And, in the end, productivity will be the No. 1 gain. We will become ever more productive worker bees."

So what's the buzz about the techno-tools that increase traveler productivity? With apologies to David Letterman, here's what travel managers, technology developers and consultants say constitute the Top Ten:

1. It may be an oldie-but-goodie but the laptop computer is as essential as a toothbrush. Priced from about $1,500 to $7,000, the hot new models are powered by Intel's pentium chip.

"The good old computer: It's made us 24-hour-a-day workers," says Robert Brunner, travel manager for Philips Electronics. "Think back to just 10 years ago when you were on a flight from Chicago to New York. It's 5 in the afternoon and everyone sits back, has a drink, chats, reads a magazine. Check out that same flight today and everyone's got a laptop out, pecking away on reports."

2. Perhaps more than any other mechanism, electronic mail has been responsible for creating an office without walls. "It's seamless," says Christine Santucci, a spokes person for Microsoft. "No one knows whether you are in or out."

Indeed, e-mail seems to have created a generation of info-addicts. "I was in e-mail at one o'clock this morning from my hotel room in Colorado Springs," says Jeffrey Kurn, who is in charge of travel management information systems for Hewlett-Packard. "Just because it's the middle of the night here doesn't mean people aren't working away in some other time zone."

3. Recently the chains have begun to offer fully loaded, user-friendly hotel rooms. Hyatt Hotels and Holiday Inn are among the trailblazers with rooms that offer such amenities as data ports, in-room fax machines, well-lighted workstations, an iron and ironing board, voice mail and access to printers and copiers.

Typically, the room costs $15 extra a day -- worth the price according to a Hyatt survey of business travelers.

4. Personal digital assistants, while still in their infancy, are emerging as the sophisticated business traveler's new best friend. A little larger than a cigarette box, some of the PDAs cost less than $1,000 and with hook-ups can send and receive faxes, feed flight guides, transcribe handwritten notes into text and serve as organizer extraordinaire.

5. Everyone seems to have a story about how access to a cellular phone has helped avert disaster or clinch a deal.

"I don't know how I'd live without my cell phone," says Jeff D. Hoffman, president of the Texas-based Travelogix. "Yesterday, in an airport in Minneapolis, every bank of phones had a line of five people waiting for a phone to come free. Can you imagine the potential business that was lost there?"

6. Journey may be more important than destination but it doesn't always work that way when you're lost in traffic and late for a meeting. To that end, look for car navigational devices to get hot. Avis, and most recently National Car Rental, have begun to offer the "talking maps" in selected markets.

The navigation systems use satellite tracking technology and electronic mapping software to guide the driver to a chosen destination. A small video screen mounted near the --board provides drivers with turn-by-turn graphics and voice directions.

7. Pagers have become as ubiquitous as the button-down shirt and can be purchased for as little as $20. They are also becoming easier to use, offering text as well as numbers on a screen. What's next? A two-way paging system that will allow the person who is paged to immediately enter a response from a variety of choices.

8. Advanced messaging systems are creating a work world in which there's no place to hide. One new voice mail system called Wildfire recognizes your voice, gives you your messages and then allows you to respond without hanging up between calls.

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