Business travel navigates turbulence

From O’Hare International Airport, a flight to Kansas City, Mo., takes about an hour and a half. Minneapolis takes slightly less. St. Louis is even closer.

Take off, ascend, descend, land – destination achieved. And yet, Dave Hubbard chooses to drive.

“When I fly, it has to be more than a six- to eight-hour trip [on the road],” said Hubbard, president of Exemplar Financial Network in Crystal Lake. “That is a big change.”

Hubbard, who has traveled an average of about two weeks a month for nearly 20 years, only recently began driving the manageable distances. It’s a change brought on by a shifting airport atmosphere in an evolving world of corporate travel.

These days, long, slow-moving security lines, packed flights and cancellations cause more headaches for frequent fliers, Hubbard said. On a national scale, the struggling economy and improved technology, such as video conferencing, are putting further stress on the industry.

Still, Jay Campbell, editorial director at Business Travel News, said corporate travel is healthy.

“As far as now and going forward, people are pretty comfortable that business travel isn’t free-falling as it was in ’08, ’09,” he said. “But nobody’s really comfortable that it’s going to be growing with any kind of gusto anytime soon.”

The recession and – going back further – the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused serious shocks to the demand levels for flights. But the market recovered steadily each time, Campbell said.

Corporate travel also has survived the challenges presented by technology, he added.

“They like to make it sort of a black-and-white answer – ‘Video conferencing replaces corporate travel, end of story,’ ” Campbell continued. “But really it’s just a factor.”

Business travel makes up about 35 percent to 40 percent of airline traffic. But because they’re generally repeat customers, business travelers are among airlines’ highest priorities, he said.

Hubbard’s company is part of a network of similar businesses nationally. He estimated that the network has cut business travel in half to save money, using things such as webcasts and conference calls. But there’s no replacement for in-person contact, he said.

“I’m in the relationship business, and we need to get out and see our clients periodically,” he said. “A phone call and a webcam just won’t do it.”

At a conference in Las Vegas two years ago, a snowstorm shut down the airport right before Hubbard was scheduled to fly back to Chicago. It took him three days to get back – the result of others trying to reschedule onto already crowded flights.

“A lot of flights were half full before 9/11,” Hubbard said. “Now you don’t find that anymore. You find very few empty seats.”

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