Getting Down and Dirty – Business Travel In The Bush

By Martin Kelly, June 4th, 2019

Business travellers wear smart clothes, travel in planes, stay in hotels with marble lobbies and have important meetings in glass-encased towers. Don’t they?

That’s certainly the cliché – an image search on ‘business traveller’ reveals page after page of square-jawed men and women striding purposefully through modern airports pulling their constant companion, the wheeled bag.

Nowhere do we see jeans, boots, utes, cars, tools, dusty backroads, stock sale yards, mines, quarries, motels, country towns or ordinary people simply hitting the road just to make a buck, whether selling a product or their expertise.

For whatever reason – not glamorous enough, perhaps – regional and rural Australia simply doesn’t get a look in when it comes to the conversation on business travel, either within the industry or the broader community.

On The Rise

And yet regional business travel is a large, vibrant sector of the travel industry that is on the rise.

Tourism Research Australia estimates there were 20.57 million business day trips to regional Australia in the 12 months to the end of September 2018, an increase of 13.4% over the previous corresponding period, with those travellers spending $2.1 billion.

And while TRA doesn’t monitor multi-day regional business trips, it is certain road warriors were strong contributors to the 10% increase in regional overnight travel spend, which reached $36.2 billion during survey period.

Unique Challenges

Remote and regional Australia presents special challenges for Travel Management Companies. Issues include distance, isolation, poor telecommunication infrastructure and safety.

“It’s completely different to managing a traditional corporate itinerary,” says Lynda Cali, Operations Manager at The Hotel Network, which manages thousands of regional bookings every month for clients including Roads and Maritime Services and NSW Health.

“Our clients can drive thousands of kilometres in a week and are often on the road for several days at a time. The majority don’t fly because due to the sheer size of NSW the airports are too far from where they need to be. Road crew can travel 24/7; checking bridges, line markings, they don’t stop.

“Communication black spots are a big, big thing and can make organising travel extremely difficult when these guys are on the road. Duty of care also plays a big role in determining itineraries – often there are huge distances between jobs and driving at night can be hazardous (with animals on the road).”

There are also safety and security issues in certain remote towns and settlements. “A lot of the time we’re actually driven by the traveller. They tell us where they want to stay, what’s appropriate and what’s not,” says Cali.

“It’s usually a special type of person who will travel to those locations, so they know what’s appropriate and what’s not. The hoteliers themselves are also very aware of the issues and we’ve got one hotelier who will lock work vans up in their own personal garage for our clients.”

Cali says rural field days present a special challenge with accommodation in extremely high demand. “We can make up to 100 calls to locate accommodation for a client on the odd occasion and have to think on our feet.”

Different Locations, Similar Priorities

Karen Bradshaw, who owns and operates the Burnett Riverside Motel in Bundaberg and the Coachman’s Inn at Warwick, says while there are challenges with regional business travel the corporates she hosts have similar priorities to their CBD colleagues.

“We’ve got a 60/40 split between corporate and leisure in both properties and what business travellers want first and foremost is wi-fi,” she says.

“They want to get in and they want to be able to connect – they’re emailing, they’re working. That’s why they are in our regions.

“Back in the day road warriors were after a bed and a shower. Now the most important thing for them is their connectivity, and then the bed and shower and then F&B.”

Bradshaw says demand is strong and the guest mix for both properties – which are strategically located in regional hub towns care – varies.

“In Warwick, for example, we’ve got a lot of business people travelling for the beef and pastoral industry – the sale yards, abattoir and so on.” Government, medical, telecommunications, legal and banking are also prominent in both destinations.

In terms of regional travel patterns, she suspects the quarterly sales trip is not the priority it once was and that “the larger companies probably doing a bit more from their desk in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne and are travelling on an as needs basis to the regions, that’s my feeling.

“But having said that there’s people coming up on a weekly basis to run the cattle sales for example. So, everybody’s doing something different.”

The Dick Smith Moment

Call it ‘The Dick Smith Moment’ – when last September the self-described saviour of the Aussie battler attacked the commissions and price parity policies of Booking.com and Expedia.

The video went viral – registering more than 2 million hits before it was taken off the air – voicing the concerns of regional hoteliers, who were questioning the value of paying 15% commission when their room revenue was already so low.

Revenue Management consultant Tamie Matthews from RevenYou is advising clients to focus on direct distribution instead, while also re-evaluating how they use Global Distribution Systems to access corporate travellers through TMCs.

Matthews says the situation has been confused by the fact that every hotel or motel using Expedia is automatically placed on the GDS network (if it’s not already listed). Hoteliers have no choice in the matter with their lowest rate often displayed.

She says that dealing directly with a GDS isn’t always a practical alternative for  smaller regional properties because of high fees, and is now recommending that hoteliers use a low-cost product such as Global Hotel Connect to access the GDS.

“It can sometimes be very difficult for TMCs to find accommodation in the bush and I think it’s vital regional hotels use the GDS, but in a cost-effective manner, to expand their distribution network and increase business traveller profile.”

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