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The Future of Business Tourism

By Dr Peter Bolan, Ulster University

Business tourism is a highly lucrative, fast-growing segment of our tourism industry in Northern Ireland. It is important to understand however that the needs of today’s business tourists are changing. From on-demand WiFi and keyless check-in to healthy meals and 24/7 gyms, today’s busy executive is focused on hotels that allow them to work more efficiently, provide amenities tailored to helping them stay healthy whilst on the road, and allow for perks that make them feel special and take away from any of the negatives that can come with frequent corporate travel.

Northern Ireland has been growing and developing its business tourism product and we have shown in recent years that we can host important international conferences and exhibitions at the higher end, and do so very successfully. Notable examples include the G8 Summit at the Lough Erne Resort which helped place that particular venue on the global stage. Another of our most notable venues going forward will be the Waterfront Hall which has undergone a sizeable enhancement. Doubling the existing convention and exhibition space at the Waterfront in particular, will greatly add to what is already a huge growth area for our economy and showcase Belfast and Northern Ireland as a highly viable and desirable venue for conference organisers and delegates.

The business traveller has been changing though, in terms of mindset, in terms of needs and wants, in terms of what they seek, how they spend their precious time and the experience they want. So how exactly have they changed? and what lessons can we learn from what has already been happening around the world? Well, many hotels and venues are beginning to adapt their services to meet the needs of the business traveller to whom time is precious and to meet an increasing desire for autonomy and personalized services.

Embracing and harnessing digital technology is a hugely important part of this, such as encompassing mobile and in-room technologies like remote check-in and temperature controls so they don’t have to spend time waiting in line at the front desk or arriving to a room where the temperature doesn’t suit conditions for how they like to work.

Some hotels are even re-designing the interior of rooms specifically around the needs of the business traveller, with ergonomic desks and chairs, office supplies and proper focused lighting. Added to that is the drive for health and fitness, often prevalent amongst many corporate travellers. The dilemma with this is that such visitors have limited time to engage in such pursuits. So we have seen hotels begin to recognise this by extending access hours and even keeping such leisure/fitness facilities open 24/7. Further, some establishments have been experimenting with placing fitness gear and equipment in-room in a limited way.

Further to this we have to consider changing demographics, in particular the millennials with their own often unique perspective. They are completely dependent on digital technology and use it through mobile devices much more frequently than the average business tourist. Not only this, but they are much more likely to be dissatisfied if there are issues with digital access.

A recent in-depth survey across north America found that WiFi is the number one amenity for frequent business travellers generally, surpassing breakfast and gym/leisure facilities. That being said, the same survey found that the business traveller increasingly wants to combine activities, such as reviewing a PowerPoint presentation whilst fitting in a workout.

Such efficient and creative use of time is something that hotels, conference venues and even airports need to be catering to much more for today’s business traveller. Getting more creative in what we provide, making things easier and more achievable for business people whilst on the move, and in-house in our hotels and conference venues can only result in more satisfied customers that recommend us and return.

Despite often having limited time, it is still important to encourage the business traveller to extend their stay if possible, and to engage more fully as leisure tourist. This extends their footprint and their spend in the region they are visiting and adds value to what may encourage them to return again, thus building loyalty. What we now call ‘Bleisure’ – mixing business travel with leisure and tourism activities. Despite time constraints this is something research shows many business travellers would like to do more. So we need to find ways to make it easier for them, to encourage them and to make it worth their while with excellent experiences that really do add value to their trip.

It is crucial therefore, that we have managers in the industry coming through that have studied and understand these aspects specifically and in the wider tourism context that surrounds it. Managers that understand the emerging needs of the new breed of business tourist and everything that needs to be utilised in a strategic way to capture those tourists, ensure they have a top quality experience and that they will return to us again. At the Ulster University Business School, through programmes such as our BSc in International Travel and Tourism Management, we are educating the next generation of such managers.

Our students study highly focused and relevant areas such as corporate event management. Around this however they are learning about everything from the importance of air route development to how to harness social media, smartphone apps and WiFi connectivity to ensure tourism success. Our travel and tourism management degree programme also provides the students with the opportunity of a one year placement in relevant industry sectors all around the globe. This ensures they have the opportunity to put into practice key elements of what they have studied in their first two years of the course. Furthermore they can return to their final year of study with a wealth of experience and can draw upon that in the latter stages of their degree qualification.

Our tourism graduates fully appreciate and understand such issues and how to harness them in the most effective way for business success. Our industry needs such graduates who have taken a course that combines cutting edge areas of business and management but tailors and focuses them specifically on the tourism industry – an industry that has great momentum at the present time and is so crucially important to Northern Ireland’s economic development going forward.

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