Gurus tally 2001 travel turmoil

The experts tell us just how big a hit the IT travel industry is taking these days.

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When terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, they not only altered the atmosphere of personal security in the United States, they irrevocably changed the way business people travel.

According to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), a Washington-based non-profit clearinghouse for the U.S. travel industry, the recent attacks will leave a long-lasting impression.

"Business travel has been declining for over three years and the economic downturn was already pulling it down for 2001. But after Sept. 11, the numbers simply fell off a cliff," said TIA spokesperson Cathy Keefe.

According to Keefe, business travel decreased more than 12% in the fourth quarter of 2001, as compared to a year ago. For full-year 2001, TIA is expecting a decline of more than 7%.

TIA estimates that the global travel and entertainment industry will lose $43 billion for the year. While a large portion of the decline is blamed on the slowing economy, Keefe said TIA does not expect a recovery to pre-2001 business travel spending levels for several years, as a direct result of Sept. 11.

Alternatives to hopping on a plane

How are companies still getting the job done without flying employees around the globe? One answer, particularly germane to the IT industry, is an increased reliance on technology itself.

The Alexandria, Va.-based National Business Travel Association (NBTA) said results of a recent survey indicated that 88% of corporate travel managers expect their companies to increase the use of videoconferencing.

Milpitas, Calif.-headquartered PolyCom Inc., considered the market leader in the field of conferencing technology for both video and audio, reports that since Sept. 11, demand for its products has become stronger.

"We've seen significant increases in inquiries since the tragic events," said Barry E. Walker, vice president of the company's Video Division. "Companies are simply using video communication in place of traveling to meetings."

Polycom counts a number of major IT players among its largest customers including enterprise software maker PeopleSoft Inc.

Along with increased use of technology to bridge gaps, professionals are also avoiding airports and planes by diverting to older -- and some feel safer -- forms of transportation. Amtrak reports that its high-speed Acela and Metroliner train services between Boston and Washington have experienced a 40% increase in ticket sales since September. While company spokesmen said Amtrak has also seen a significant rise in its cross-country sleeper car services, the officials said the Acela and Metroliner lines are most heavily populated by businesspeople.

According to the NBTA, 65% of the companies polled also said they would increase the use of car rentals for shorter trips.

Getting back to normal?

At the same time, there are those in the business travel sector that feel things are already returning to some level of normalcy. NBTA released a report predicting a recovery in the coming months. Out of 200 companies the group surveyed, 70% indicated they plan to return to previous levels of travel in the next three to six months.

Stacey Nidoff, a representative of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), said organization members have reported an increase in reservations for business trips over the last several weeks.

Another bullish party is nationally syndicated radio host Jacqueline Wolfer, an owner of four travel companies, who has worked as a consultant to businesses such as American Express Co., which is quietly the world's largest travel agency.

"Initially people said 'I'm not flying.' But now it's safer to fly than ever before," Wolfer said. "It took people a while to realize that the security is there, but the planes I've been on are full, you simply can't get a seat. Business travelers have to travel, we know what happened on Sept. 11 and as a country we're doing something about it. Life -- and travel -- will return to normal at home."

Among the tips Wolfer offers to business travelers are to show up early, repeatedly confirm flights and bring a cell phone in case it becomes necessary to change plans on the fly. She also advises bringing a good book.

"'Cause those lines aren't going anywhere for a while," she said.

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