How can anyone predict the impact the war on terrorism will have on meetings and business travel? “It's like trying to gaze into a crystal ball while it's rolling,” was how Laurie Armstrong, spokesperson for the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, put it.
Hit hardest have been New York and Washington, D.C. “No one knows when people will feel better about traveling,” said Jonathan Tisch, president and CEO of New York-based Loews Hotels, in early October. “My gut feeling is that with the holidays coming up, you'll see things start to return to a more normal level.”
Like other major New York hotel operators, Loews, which operates four hotels in New York and two in Washington, D.C., is working to ensure a return to whatever “normal” may mean for future meeting business, as well as to minimize losses. “We've established a policy whereby one can postpone a meeting scheduled between September 12 and November 30 with no penalty, as long as the event is rescheduled before December 31, 2002. That's pretty much in the middle of what other hotels are doing,” said Charlotte St. Martin, the company's executive vice president of marketing. “So far, more than 50 percent of our meetings that postponed have rescheduled.”
There are indications that meetings and business travel are gaining momentum. While New York hotel occupancies dipped radically after 9/11, they were back up to 54.6 percent by the end of September. “On the most basic level, business appears to be coming back,” reported Mark Lomanno, president of Smith Travel Research. Before 9/11, STR had projected a year-end nationwide occupancy rate of 63.7 percent, which it has since lowered to 60.7 percent — a substantial impact, but, if it holds, not a devastating one.
Brian Ullman, director of marketing and communications for the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp., reported more meeting dates being rescheduled than canceled. “People are coming in as a patriotic gesture,” he said. “We want to see that feeling spread to the meeting industry. There's no time like now to come to Washington.”
News was similar in other cities. In Philadelphia, all events scheduled for 2002 are still on. In Orlando, more than 60 percent of the groups that canceled right after 9/11 are in discussions about rebooking, according to Orlando CVB President William Peeper.