What promises to be a hectic summer in London for leisure travellers could also be a disruptive one for business travel, reports Stanley Slaughter
Weather permitting, this promises to be a glorious summer of celebration in London. First up in June is the Queen’s diamond jubilee marking her 60 years on the throne. Then comes the Olympics in late July and August followed by the Paralympics in late August and September. The city is likely to be awash with bunting, flags and banners from early June. There is also likely to be a huge influx of visitors, not only from around the world but also from across the UK to see, enjoy and celebrate these great events.
They will be heady days for the corporate hospitality business with major companies – not just the sponsors – inviting favoured clients to bunfights and beanfeasts around southern England. These on their own will go a long way to packing venues and hotels in the region. But there will also be a large number coming to the capital under their own steam and purely as leisure visitors. Some will stay in hotels, some in B&Bs and many with friends.
But this huge – and welcome – invasion is going to present great problems for the business traveller both in terms of accommodation and transport. Needless to say, it comes at a time when London hotels are enjoying extra good times and London is seen as the world’s top business destination. Hotel consultants PKF reported last month that rooms yield in London grew by an impressive 5.5% to £105.26 from £99.73 in March 2011, compared to the same month last year. The increase was driven by a 7.6% rise in room rate to £131.93, compared with £122.65 a year earlier.
Robert Barnard, partner for consultancy, said: “The London hotel sector is shaping up well for a strong year. Looking ahead, the capital’s hotels are ideally placed to benefit from what could become a golden summer.” The UK capital also topped a list of the 25 most visited global business destinations in 2011, compiled and released last month by expenses specialist Concur, beating rivals like New York, Shanghai and Paris.
The majority of travel managers, knowing they will need hotel rooms in London this summer will have sorted this out months ago and reserved the rooms they are likely to require. There is, however, always going to be a necessity for last-minute trips to tie up a deal or stop them from falling apart and this may create problems. These rooms are going to be hard to find and will probably come with a premium price tag. These months may also be boom time for providers of video conferencing services.
But it is transport that is likely to prove the more crucial problem. Getting around London during the Olympics is going to be a serious problem – read ABTN’s feature on the transport implications of the games. Most home-based firms have been warned and sometimes advised that it may be best for their staff to work from home during the games. This does not augur well for the incoming traveller.
There are already problems looming at Heathrow with reports of substantial delays at immigration. These are likely to get worse as the numbers arriving increase. The government seems to be too busy denying anything is wrong to get to grips with the fact that more staff are required. This is now a matter of urgency. The jubilee is just a month away and the games in under three months. Unless the problem is properly dealt with, the first impression many people are going to have of London is a long, depressing queue at an airport already running at breaking point.
When the business travellers do, finally, get into London, they are likely to experience a shortage of cabs which will be plying their trade around the Olympic venues and unpleasantly packed Tubes and trains. There is no obvious, let alone easy, solution to this. To advise them not to come would be folly when the economy is now back in recession.
It might be better for the incomers to arrange to meet outside London for their business talks. This may increase and complicate journey times but it might be a lot less hectic. This could possibly be something that TMCs can suggest to clients and it would also give a welcome boost to the regions while simultaneously easing congestion in London. Birmingham, after all, is not the end of the world. There are good hotels and restaurants there, just as there are in Manchester, Bristol, Brighton and many other cities.
What perhaps is most essential though is that the incoming business traveller knows he or she could be in for a trying time during the summer. A friendly warning plus suggestions of alternative meeting places could ease these likely troubles.