City Insider: Travel's future is more What Women Want than George Clooney

City Insider - FT journalist David Stevenson on the travel industry

Call me old-fashioned and judgemental but it has long been obvious to that men and women experience travel and holidays in very different ways.

Anyone with a family will know that although both mum and dad care greatly about the children’s club facilities, most dads will focus on the cost and the more transient sensations (how large is the swimming pool, is there a games area, how near is the golf course).

Mum, on the other hand, will focus on safety and ambience. Saving £200 and arriving at 3am in the morning will be fine for me, but for my wife it’ll be an experience close to purgatory.

We shouldn’t exaggerate these differences (we all care about good service and reasonable value) but they're real and absolutely do matter in a business sense, especially for an industry that’s struggling to cope with low overall growth and a need to segment its key markets with ever greater precision.

I’d suggest that differences between are probably most important in business travel. Women business travellers represent the future for the hospitality industry and if Dr. Judi Brownell from Cornell University is right, their perception of what matters is very different than their male colleagues.

In a report called “Creating value for women business travellers” Dr. Brownell concludes that all those trite but nevertheless amusing observations about women and men from books like “Men are from Mars ,Women are from Venus” are truer than we think, and that the future for the business travel segment probably looks a less like the George Clooney character from Up in the Air than his love interest, Vera Formiga’s Alex Goran.

The study also reveals that women are much more likely to provide feedback and express dissatisfaction than their supposedly bullish male colleagues.

According to Dr. Brownell, the key difference between the sexes is that for women the hotel experience – the focus of her particular academic study – should be about “eliciting a positive effect”.

She suggests that the emotional aspect of service is very strong, and has developed a list of the emotions that women seek from hospitality. They include:

  • Safety: Think well-lit hallways, covered parking and deadbolts on the doors.
  • Comfort: “Women are more and more concerned about getting a good night’s sleep. Women are twice as likely to bring their own pillow.”
  • Empowerment: “Room service and the convenience of in-room facilities play an important role in helping women travellers achieve a sense of independence and well-being”
  • Being valued: This means less focus on nice toiletries, more large windows and windows that open, light coloured walls and stylish room furnishings

How does all this translate into hard business? Dr. Brownell asks both hotel managers and women business travellers for their practical views and discovers that most male hotel managers reckon it’s about having a tub in the room as well as lots of nice flowers.

Unsurprisingly, women business travellers beg to differ – they think the most important issues are the availability of covered parking and complimentary garment pressing. Dr. Brownell’s respondents also point to remote controls for TVs that work as well a nice coffee and tea set, plus security cameras in hallway and self check in and out.

Some of these aspirations are slowly being addressed, especially in the US hotels market - the Pan Pacific San Fran for instance supplies female guests with a personal escort to their room while others offer women-only networking tables or women-only floors.

Massive change

But for the most part, the reality experienced by most travellers in the UK and Europe is very different to what Dr. Brownell envisions. Too much of the aviation sector for instance is focused exclusively on throughput and economy, with barely any consideration given to emotion and experience.

Traipsing around badly-lit airport car parks, trying to find a bus in the dark, then queuing for ages in an airport where simple needs are frequently ignored. And then onto an airplane where even the business class pillows feel like they were made by tarmac. The experience for female business travellers is shabby and dispiriting, not least in the low cost segment.

The experience needs to change – business travel is the cornerstone of the industry and women business travellers in particular are a key growth segment. Dr. Brownell cites research from the Tisch Center in New York, which finds that the typical women traveller is a baby boomer with a degree, married with no children and takes at least four trips a year.

These women travel differently – fewer one-night stops and much more focus on the hospitality experience. Add it all up and you have a growing demographic segment, willing to pay more for an environment that pleases them and makes them feel safe.

But I’d apply these observations on business travel to the whole travel industry – one dominated in its upper echelons by men in the C Suite but increasingly staffed by women at all other levels.

The big travel brands' emphasis on soothing branding, new hotel facilities and more leg-room on aircraft is all well and good, but it’s no substitute for looking at the travel experience in a holistic way – from door to door, pillow to pillow.

Given a choice between a cheaper holiday with facilities that feel a tad ‘unsafe’, no small touches and no quiet places to relax (but plenty of sunshine) or a holiday that intelligently adds the valuable extras, won’t most female decision makers in the modern nuclear family opt for the latter?

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