Ritzy Rooms For Less

Business travelers used to be the cash cows of the hotel business. Armed with corporate credit cards and expense accounts, they'd happily lay down hundreds of dollars per night for the privilege of a Godiva chocolate on their pillow and a sunken whirlpool tub in their bathroom. But just as prolonged corporate belt-tightening has forced road warriors to use budget airlines, more and more of them are now eschewing five-star lodging in favor of cheaper accommodations. "Top executives used to be able to spend whatever they liked on a room," says Alex Kyriakidis, managing partner in charge of travel and tourism for Deloitte & Touche. "Now even the top business-travel spenders like IBM or Goldman Sachs are putting stricter controls on where their employees stay." Indeed, earlier this year the U.S.-based National Business Travel Association released figures showing that 61 percent of corporate travel managers planned to book their people into lower-priced hotels in the coming year.

Here's the good news: penny-pinching is translating into better deals at cheap and upmarket hotels alike. Services at middle-market hotels are rising to accommodate a new wave of more demanding corporate customers. And luxury hotels are working harder to keep business travelers coming, offering lower rates, special packages and extra services. Even though business-travel volume is set to rise by more than 4 percent in 2004 after three dismal years, hotels will continue to be under pressure--in large part because a weak dollar is forcing American business travelers (the richest chunk of the market) to search for value.

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Some of the best deals are coming from the big chains. In January Starwood Hotels announced it would upgrade its global middle-market brand, Four Points, by rolling out free high-speed wireless Internet access in all guest rooms, adding plusher beds (with 200-thread-count sheets) and stocking each room with complimentary mineral water. On the flip side, upscale brands like InterContinental and Ritz-Carlton are selling empty rooms at discount rates via online services like Expedia.com or Lastminute.com. That has the knock-on effect of depressing luxury-room prices, because corporate travel managers can now demand that hotels match their own discount prices all the time. InterContinental hotels in France and Germany have been hit so hard that they are actually repricing their rooms to reflect rates before the dollar began falling. Upscale hotels like Waldorf-Astoria, Sofitel and W are also trying to offer extra services, like expanded luxury shops that sell everything from silk carpets to motorcycles.

But beware new, hidden fees. In an effort to make up some of --their lost revenue, hotels are starting to charge corporate travelers for things that used to be free--including breakfast, banquet or meeting rooms, or the use of fitness facilities. "Companies should be on the lookout for these, and remember that they have leverage to negotiate them away," says Bjorn Hanson, head of PriceWaterhouseCoopers' travel-and-tourism division. The same goes for rates; the National Business Travel Association says many of its members are locking in current room rates not just for the usual one year but for two or three.

Aside from saving companies money, the trend in frugal business travel may give rise to a whole new market segment: the buy-to-let hotel room. Last week in London, British property developer Johnny Sandelson launched GuestInvest, a boutique hotel in Notting Hill where users can purchase a room for [Pound sterling]235,000, use it for a maximum of 52 nights a year themselves, then rent it out the rest of the time to make extra money. It seems an idea whose time has come: GuestInvest says it has already fielded hundreds of calls from business people interested in making a cheaper hotel their second home.

Beyond The Gray

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Latin America's premier business destination is overgrown with big, boring luxury hotels. But tucked among the gray monuments lie a few gems:

The newest is the Fasano, a handsome, 25-story neo art deco slab with a great clock on its front. The 68-room hotel has a health club on the roof and a hushed lobby with plump easy chairs and a reception desk hidden behind the jazz bar.

Hotel Unique is shaped like half a watermelon and sheathed in metal and steel. A minimalist lobby ends in a horseshoe bar, set beneath 16 shelves of colored bottles. Up top the Skye bar opens onto a deck with a panoramic view of the city.

Hotel Emiliano is a petite granite stylus of a building so understated it has no sign. After a welcome glass of champagne, guests are initiated into the wonders of plasma TV and heated toilet seats.


Stress-Free Flying

In this era of heightened alerts, cramped seats and increased security, flying is often anything but relaxing. To combat the tension, TIP SHEET spoke to Bess Abrahams, a certified yoga instructor and coauthor of "Airplane Yoga" (109 pages. Riverhead), who suggests airborne execs try the following onboard exercises:

EAGLE STRETCH: Position yourself in the aisle or lavatory as shown. Move your elbows away from your chest and upward. Stretch, but don't strain.

WRIST STRETCHES: Roll up a barf bag with your hands slightly apart. Breathing in and out, pretend you are wringing out a towel.

OVERHEAD COMPARTMENT TWIST: Inhale and lift your arms as shown. Exhale and twist your body to the right. Complete five full deep breaths. Repeat to the left.

TRAY SHOULDER RELEASE: Sit as shown. Exhale and gently press your palms underneath the meal tray as you drop your shoulders down.


Lounging In Luxury

Business travel doesn't have to be all hassle. Airport lounges have been getting more and more plush in recent times. tip sheet's favorites:

Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong You won't find many noodle bars that top this one. Eat in a lounge chair with your own TV. Then soak in a private room with a tub for two. Even if you weren't waiting for a flight, could life possibly get any better?

Japan Airlines, Tokyo You've entered massage country. So why not get one from a professional--after sipping a brew at the English-style pub? You could even head to the theater and catch a flick on the giant-screen television. Start your vacation even before you leave the airport.

Virgin Clubhouse, Heathrow, London This lounge's 5,000-volume library is worth checking out. Pick a good book and head up to the rooftop conservatory, where you can watch the planes take off and contemplate some Shakespeare or Jane Austen. Perhaps you have time for a little sprucing up? You can change your whole look with a new hairdo at the Virgin Clubhouse's Salon--and get a manicure, too.

British Airways, Heathrow, London Comfy chairs shielded by mesh screens offer the privacy you might need to relax. And the opulent setting--with burnt-plumsofas and tan leather recliners--lends this lounge an aristocratic feel. If that's not enough to put you at ease, head to the therapy center for body-jet-hydrotherapy showers and massages.

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, JFK, New York Sip a cocktail and pick from an extensive and lavish buffet while watching the 42-inch plasma-screen television. Or you can kill some time on a Sony PlayStation, at the salon oron the Internet.


Safety On The Road

In the age of terrorism, corporate security has become a growth industry. Security consultants today offer a range of services, including intelligence briefings and in-depth "self-protection" seminars. Prudential and the World Bank go so far as to track every employee on the road.

iJet Travel Risk Management, in Annapolis, Maryland, has more than 400 customers, up from barely a dozen in 2001. In addition to providing employee-tracking services, iJet furnishes intelligence on everything from hurricanes to SARS to impending coups.

Kroll Inc.--a large, global risk-consulting group--is expanding its 88-acre Crucible training center in northern Virginia to teach executives how to stay safe on the road--in part by detecting surveillance and blending in while away from home. All the planning in the world won't help in the event of another 9/11. But in the more common scenarios, a little preparation can go a long way.


Taking A Breather

For downtime between meetings, look beyond the hotel bar:

many hotels now offer CD, VCR or DVD players in each room, as well as films and CDs. The Hotel Le Beauvallon in St. Tropez, France, and The Scotsman in Edinburgh also offer private screening rooms. The new Mandarin Oriental in New York equips each guest room with a 74-cm flat-panel LCD screen and Dolby Surround sound system. The Metropolitan in London and Bangkok offers guests their own yoga mats. Golfers can perfect their swing on the enclosed rooftop driving range at the Ritz-Carlton Seoul.


Anticipating Every Need

It's taken a long time, but hotels are finally getting the hang of catering to female business travelers. Which makes sense, especially since this segment of travelers has increased by 70 percent in the last decade. Some hotels, such as the London Hilton on Park Lane and the Hamilton Crowne Plaza in Washington, D.C., set aside women-only floors and "community tables" in the restaurant. But overall, the industry now understands that it's the little things--name-brand amenities, a large selection of pillows, chenille robes and healthier snacks in the minibar--that keep businesswomen coming back. In Buenos Aires, the Park Tower offers a personal shopper to advise women on culturally appropriate clothing and on Argentina's best-quality goods. The Loews Hotel chain across the United States has a "Did You Forget?..." closet that makes available things guests typically forget--including the all-important black evening bag. And for security-conscious joggers, Denver's Hotel Teatro will provide an exercise escort. That's getting a run for your money.


Gear On The Go

Tip Sheet's must-haves: for carrying convenience, it's a suitcase, it's a chair, it's the EZ-Swany Stick Chair Cart! This innovative piece of luggage unfolds into a small seat for the weary traveler ($199.99; ezswany.com). If you take your laptop everywhere, try Magellan's Dual Access Computer Case (magellans.com). It's a rolling suitcase that has a padded side pocket to store your PC ($115).

For memories you can fit in your shirt pocket, Panasonic's digital video camera, the SV-AV100, weighs in at a scant 154 grams ($999.95). The portable DVD-LS5 player is perfect for a personal, in-flight movie ($499.95; panasonic.com). Need to scan on the go? DocuPen makes a portable scanning wand that can hold 100 images ($199; planon.com).