HB ON THE SCENE: Business Travelers Look for Frictionless, Authentic Experiences

NEW YORK—Hilton and American Express recently held a launch event here at The Conrad New York in honor of their new co-branded credit cards. As part of the occasion, the companies hosted “The Business Corner,” an invite-only panel discussion on 2018 business travel trends.

“Enjoyable business travel was an oxymoron when I started traveling 25 years ago, and brands like Hilton have really modernized the experience and made it something for business owners, particularly small business owners, to look forward to doing,” said Audrey Hendley, SVP of global products at American Express.

Hendley noted that by 2020, there are going to be 483 million domestic business trips. “That’s a lot of room nights, a lot of business owners on the road,” she said.

Mark Weinstein, SVP of customer engagement, loyalty and partnerships at Hilton, pointed to the blending of business and leisure, or bleisure. “Businesses are made up of travelers that are humans. We have to think of it that way—it’s about individual people trying to have individual experiences,” he said.

Hendley noted that American Express recently did a survey that found that 67% of business travelers say that when they go to a destination, even for business, what they enjoy most is cultural experiences.

Susan Portnoy, a travel photographer and founder of The Insatiable Traveler, a blog that celebrates world travel, added, “Everybody’s talked about local, having some kind of authenticity in what you do. Some of the things I like to do is talk to a concierge and ask if there’s a particular activity or a particular food or something I should know about this area. Where’s the best place to go? I don’t necessarily want the hippest and coolest, but someplace I can get that thing.”

“Find any team member in a hotel and ask where they’re going after work,” Weinstein advised. “Where do they go for dinner? You get a whole different perspective. They’re so used to giving the top 10 lists to the tourists, [but]they often have some great holes in the wall that become the best experiences.”

“One thing I like to do is just wander,” Portnoy said. “I try to put it into my schedule as much as I can, just one to two hours, let serendipity tell me where to go. I’d find the most amazing things, wonderful, little markets and people to talk to.”

Nick Brown, CEO and founder of Soludos, a footwear and accessories brand, agreed. “Set aside time for discovery, for spontaneity. Put away the to do list. Get lost,” he said.

Brown also noted that one thing business travelers really want is frictionless, effortless travel. “I’m impressed by even small things like a digital key,” he said. “You can check in with your phone, take a hot shower, all those small things. We’re in a very interesting time with tech; we’re seeing new players, and it’s about human time, giving efficiencies back to the customer so they can focus on how they want to divide time up.”

From the brand side, Weinstein said, “The reality of what you’re seeing is years ago, hotels pioneered technology. Over time, our homes caught up and surpassed. The model we’re going to now is not so much about putting in extra technology, but about enabling your technology.

“Whether it’s the app knowing your preferences, or enabling the room to have more outlets, having adapters in place, or enabling you to finish watching what you were watching on the plane, moving forward you’re seeing a lot more focus on enabling you to bring your whole self with you, and not just limiting you to the technology you have available to you,” he continued. “Gone are the days of picturing the Jetsons, robots serving you in the hotel room; it’s about people and human connections. What I love about the stuff we’re pioneering is it looks like a normal room; it’s just powered by cool technology.”

Weinstein added that Hilton typically makes enhancements based on a three-prong strategy: by asking questions, listening and observing, and depending on its community of small business owners. (According to Weinstein, about 75% of Hilton’s guests are business travelers and some 1,900 small business owners own a franchise of a Hampton Inn or Homewood Suites.)

But, he said, it’s not just about giving them exactly what they say they want. “If you ask someone for a top 10 list, they wouldn’t say a receipt in their phone, but if you need to do an expense report quickly, that helps,” he explained. “For a business owner or traveler, we email you your folio so you have a record for your expense report you can always pull back up in your app. It’s about finding the customer experience that works for everyone.”