Courting the business traveler

Executive floors, butlers are among hotel offerings


October 12, 2003|By June Sawyers | June Sawyers,Chicago Tribune

Business travelers have been the backbone of the hotel industry for so long that it became easy to take them for granted, assuming they'd always be there. Not anymore.

With occupancy rates dropping from 63 percent in 2000 to 59.1 percent, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association's 2003 Lodging Industry Profile, hotels have a lot of unanticipated empty beds to fill.

Now the business traveler is being wooed, pursued and flattered through incentive and frequent guest programs, discounted corporate rates and various packaging and bundling schemes. Work-related amenities like 24-hour business centers, executive tech suites and executive floors have become commonplace.

For hotels catering to the business traveler -- from popular chains to independents -- keeping up with the technological times has meant that standards have changed.

Today's business-ready rooms often include oversized desks, ergonomic chairs and in-room fax machines along with the now-expected dual (or more) phones with data port connections, voice mail and high-speed Internet access.

And hotels are also keeping up with the times in on-the-road health trends. Hilton offers the "Get Fit With Hilton In-Room Fitness Program," in which, among other things, treadmills can be delivered to your room.

Various chains specializing in long-stay accommodations also go beyond the room to provide business space for their largely corporate clientele.

For instance, the Conference Center of the Americas, adjacent to the landmark Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla., provides some 76,000 square feet of space for upscale executive meetings.

What's more, a new generation of hotels attempting to entice the business traveler has emerged.

Hotels like the Tribeca Grand or the Benjamin in New York, Nine Zero in Boston, the Standard and Mondrian in Los Angeles and Topaz in Washington are not afraid to be different. The San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel chain will send a goldfish to your room, if you ask, at its Monaco hotels.

And to liven up your boardroom-on-the-road, the W hotels (which also feature a "Whatever / Whenever service") will replace the once-stuffy setting with a "W Sensory Meeting," which features mood music, aroma-therapy scents and candles.

At top-end business hotels, butlers are, perhaps, the hottest trend.

There are bathtub butlers, concierge floor butlers, pillow butlers and, especially in demand now, technology butlers. These "e" butlers (the Ritz-Carlton Chicago calls them "comp-cierges") are trained to handle everything from showing a guest how to turn off a laptop to fixing computer crashes.

Not to be outdone by all this specialization, the Pan Pacific in San Francisco provides each guest with a "personal" butler who is expected to tend to every need. That can range from fetching a favorite cup of tea to packing a guest's suitcase before departure.

But with all these added services and amenities, there's one thing today's business traveler doesn't want: surprises. They want consistency -- and if they can't find it, they will go elsewhere.

The idea is to allow business travelers to "remain productive while they're on the road," said Susan Maier, director of public relations at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago.

"People are willing to pay the money as long as they can see the value," she said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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