The Global Business Travel Association’s 2012 annual meeting was one for the history books: President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush both spoke at the annual conclave, this year held at the Boston Convention & Exposition Center, July 22–25. It was the first time two U.S. presidents participated, according to GBTA.

Bush spoke on Tuesday afternoon to a packed hall. Crowds starting lining up more than an hour ahead of time, snaking down the hallway and around the corner in either direction. The 41st president gave a colorful, funny, and candid address that lasted over an hour, including a 35-minute speech followed by a half-hour interview with GBTA Executive Director and COO Michael McCormick. He talked about his time in—and out—of office. “I loved being president and I love not being president,” he said. “It’s like going from 100 miles per hour to 5 miles per hour and then you’re home on a couch in Crawford [Texas].” Bush joked that when his wife Laura asked how he was adjusting, he said that it was good to be free. Her retort: he was free to do the dishes as part of his new domestic agenda.

Bush has kept a low profile since leaving office (he says he’s even taken up oil painting), and he noted that staying out of the spotlight is the right thing to do because former presidents shouldn’t undermine the current president. Bush promoted his book, Decision Points, and talked about leadership. “When you get into the Oval Office, you better be ready to make decisions. To run a company or an organization, you need to have a vision and principles. State them clearly and honor them.” Regarding travel on Air Force One, Bush quipped: “Our country does Presidential travel right.”

Journalists, including trade and local media, were given limited access to the Bush address, sponsored by Orbitz for Business. Media was allowed to cover Bush for the first three minutes of the speech only, with no still or video photography permitted.

No such restrictions surrounded the coverage of Bill Clinton, sponsored by Boeing. People lined up to get into the room at least 90 minutes before the doors opened on Wednesday afternoon. Yet the room was perhaps only two-thirds full. The expo had ended at noon and most of the suppliers, unless they were Clinton fans, had left for home.

The GBTA acronym was the genesis of jokes for the week’s general session speakers. Comedian Seth Meyers started at Monday’s keynote, saying that former President George Bush was only speaking at the convention because he thought the initials stood for “George Bush is Totally Awesome.” On Tuesday, Bush confessed it meant “George Bush Travels A lot.”

Clinton’s translation? “That was actually the Republican slogan after I got elected president: Go Back To Arkansas.” Or, “Get Bill Two Aspirin” on a bad allergy day. Finally, he said, GBTA also stood for the topic of his talk: “Great Brains Take Action.”

Clinton referenced the business travel industry only once during his speech. “This is a serious time for our country and our world. Understandably we are being held back. But it looks good for your business: People are not going to stop traveling around. Plus it’s fun to go places!”

His comments then focused on the good deeds of his Foundation, mostly helping African nations find practical solutions to fighting poverty and disease. But he also spoke in a nonpartisan way about what the country needs to do in this election season, aiming his comment to independents who might have a hard time making up their minds.

He said a spirit of compromise and “getting it done” does not exist in American politics today because Democrats and Republicans are bitterly divided and people are forced to choose one side or the other.

“Wherever I go in the world, where there’s creative cooperation, good things happen,” he said. “Where there’s constant conflict, good things don’t happen.”

Corporate Leaders Weigh In

In addition to national leaders, GBTA also heard from travel industry corporate leadership throughout the conference. At the “Luminaries of Travel” panel on Tuesday, Trip Davis, co-founder and chairman of travel technology company TRX and president of the Darden School Foundation at the University of Virginia, moderated a panel of travel company CEOs: Arne Sorenson, president and CEO of Marriott International Inc.; Barney Harford, CEO of Orbitz Worldwide; David Cush, president and CEO of Virgin America; and Luis Maroto, president and CEO of Amadeus. The audience was treated to a wide-ranging discussion on the risks and opportunities the industry faces:

The European Economy: Davis characterized the European debt crisis as “probably the most pressing topic” at hand for global travel companies. “The next six to 12 months will be tough,” agreed Maroto, who said, “A week ago I would have been more optimistic.” And while all agreed that the situation is critical, Sorenson pointed out a bit of a silver lining. “Demand into London and Paris has been very good. … As the euro weakens, it becomes cheaper [for international travelers] to go there.”

Mobile Technology: “The PC is dead,” said Virgin America’s Cush. “Nobody’s interested in it any more. Everyone is mobile.” And the travel industry is playing catch-up: “We’re behind this time,” he said, but noted that it won’t be long before airlines address the issue from a service level: “Fleetwide Wi-Fi is going to become standard.”

Creating Carrots: Because there are so many booking options available to travelers, the pressure is on to make corporate booking tools increasingly sophisticated and user-friendly.  “Control is hard for the younger generation,” said Orbitz’s Harford. “The younger generation wants to be empowered. You really have to have the carrot. You have to have an effective tool [if you expect them to use it], not just say, “This is what the boss says to do.”

Globalizing Procurement: Travel managers have to think globally, said Virgin America’s Cush. The airlines are building networks and powerful hubs around the world, and travel managers should be thinking, “If I want to keep up with these guys, I need to globalize how I procure because they’re globalizing the way they sell.”

Hotel Rates: Sorenson warned the buyers in the audience to expect higher hotel rates this year. “This is the third year in a good recovery, but we are climbing out of a very deep hole. Profitability isn’t back,” he said, “but increasingly we have confidence we’ll do it.”

Data Mining:In various ways, all the panelists agreed with Harford who said there was a “phenomenal opportunity to use data to improve the [client] experience. We’re becoming a travel data company.” At Virgin America, the company is analyzing data on how clients—and nonclients—use its purchasing site. Historically, he said, the company has defined demand as what was bought in the past, but that’s changing as it analyses data on the behavior of people who didn’t buy.

GBTA said attendance records were broken in the travel-buyer category, with 1,475 travel buyers attending and a total of 6,671 attendees. Next year’s event will be in San Diego, August 4–7.