Women in Business Class? the Travel World Wises Up
Connie Glaser, in her sleek black pantsuit, was settling into business class when her seatmate leaned over to make a few requests. He asked her to take his coat, fit his bag into the overhead bin, and perhaps find him a pillow. "I was a woman in business class, and he assumed I was a flight attendant," sighs Glaser, 51, an often-traveled author and consultant from Atlanta. "And this was last year--we're not talking a decade ago."
The ranks of female business travelers have swelled in recent years and are still growing: Fully half of all business travelers are expected to be women by 2002--up 10 percent in a mere three years. And they're big spenders, too. But women still routinely report second-class service, both in the air and on the ground.
In one recent study by New York University, men and women agreed that flight attendants, gate agents, and hotel desk clerks tend to treat men with more deference. "Most hotels I visit are fine, but there are places I won't stay anymore because they've made it clear that I'm not as valued as their male clients," says Lisa Negri, a trade-show talent coordinator from Detroit. As a result, Negri has learned to take steps such as requesting female concierges, who recommend restaurants where women can comfortably eat alone. And she rewards travel companies that are truly accommodating.
With significant business at stake, the travel industry is taking steps small and large to appeal to female business travelers. Hotels are stocking minibars with pantyhose and fruit juices, offering jogging companions for daily runs, and redesigning the ubiquitous terry-cloth robe to better fit women. In a more concentrated effort, airlines have launched programs such as Delta's Executive Woman's Travel Network, for which demand was so great that the airline created a waiting list. And hotel chains including Crowne Plaza, Wyndham, Westin, and Ritz-Carlton are convening advisory boards of female business travelers and retraining their staffs in an effort to hone service.
In the process, some travel companies discovered that past efforts to reach out to women were viewed as mere window dressing. "Women told us uniformly that they weren't represented properly in promotional material. They were either on a beach in St. Thomas with a tank suit on, or in an old 1980s business suit with the little ruffled bow tie," says Robert Mayer, vice president of marketing for Crowne Plaza hotels. This time, they're trying not to stereotype. "Just because a guest doesn't look like something out of a Brooks Brothers catalog doesn't mean they aren't to be taken seriously," says Mayer.
Security remains a top concern for female travelers. Negri says she's "always amazed" when hotels give out her room number within earshot of others. "Then I have to request another room," she says. "Others don't have deadbolts so I've had to jam chairs under my doorknob." Hotels are getting more safety conscious. The Omni Los Angeles Hotel instructs staff to write down room numbers, not announce them. It has also installed lighting above each guest room door "to make it easier for women to find keys in their purse," says Michelle Bolton, a hotel spokesperson.
Beyond hangers. James McManemon, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta, was surprised when he recently invited some frequent female guests to lunch. He was looking for suggestions, which he thought would include "image things like silk hangers," he says. Instead, he uncovered more serious complaints. "If the hotel was filling up quickly, women noticed that the staff was more likely to give them the smaller beds," says McManemon. He looked into it. "And I realized they were generally right about that."
The hotel retrained its staff. In response to the women's suggestions, it began including a small bottle of Woolite and makeup remover pads in the array of toiletries in the hotel bathrooms. "They're now the most popular items," he notes. The hotel also added nylons and tampons to the minibar and custom-ordered women's robes with lighter terry cloth. "Women were asking for robes that weren't as bulky," says McManemon.
Hotels are discovering that small touches can matter, as women appreciate personalized service. Westin revamped its hotel restrooms, installing better lighting and high-powered hair dryers. "In some hotel bathrooms, you get these terrible lights that make you look like a horrendous dead person," says Jill Angert, 31, a meeting manager with American Express from Pennsylvania. "It may sound like a trivial thing--until you put on all of this makeup and you go outside looking like a clown." Angert also appreciates the nail files and polish offered at places like the Sheraton Suites Le Soleil hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, which introduced "Elle Suites" for female business travelers in November, providing printers, faxes, and in-room copiers, as well as passes to the YWCA.
Buddy system. And special services, like companions for jogging, are a big hit with frequent female travelers. At the Argent Hotel in San Francisco, female guests meet in the lobby at 6:30 a.m. and run through the gardens of Telegraph Hill one day, across Golden Gate Bridge the next. Jane Davis, a 28-year-old meeting planner, jogs daily when she's home in Boston. "But when I'm away on business, I'd rather not run on my own and end up in an unsavory neighborhood." While staying at the Argent, she not only got a workout but met two business contacts.
Yet some female travelers have decided to eschew big hotels for the intimacy of smaller accommodations like bed- and-breakfast inns. Dan and Nancy Ward, proprietors of the Inn on Main Street in Weaverville, N.C., tout their accommodations to female business travelers, promising wine "without the pickup atmosphere of a hotel bar"--and even inviting guests' business associates to join them for a working breakfast.
Where To Learn More
www.journeywoman.com. For those road warriors with specific needs, such as finding hand-tailored clothes in Vietnam or communal tables in New York.
www.womenontheirway.com. The Wyndham Hotels chain shares its tips. Suggestions are welcome.
www.hermail.net. A network of women who will E-mail you savvy advice, such as what to wear to that last-minute "business casual" meeting in Singapore.
This story appears in the February 12, 2001 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.