Moderator Tanya Racz, president of National Business Travel Association (NBTA) Canada, opened the discussion with results of a recent member survey in which 70 percent of respondents expected business travel to continue to expand, albeit at a slower pace in 2009. Panel participants supported these findings and agreed that business travel will continue, but in different ways.

?People are going to continue to travel,? said Richard Bartrem, vice-president of culture and communications for WestJet. ?Our load factor hit record highs in December ? the highest in WestJet?s history for the month. However, booking patterns are changing. People are waiting until the last minute to book in hopes that they will see a fire sale.?

Changes are evident in the hotel industry as well, which has seen four years of record growth. Best Western has seen the number of its bookings remain steady year-over-year, but cited a five to 10 percent decline in length of stay.

Panel participants also highlighted how rising travel costs are affecting both the managed and unmanaged business traveller, stressing that value is key to attracting business. Brands that do not ?nickel-and-dime? with hidden fees and surprises will continue to fare well.

?More companies are moving their hotel business to the mid-market sector, for perception purposes and because all-inclusive pricing helps their bottom line,? said Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Best Western International. ?Best Western requires its hoteliers to provide complimentary Internet and local phone calls, and most offer free breakfast and parking, too. This positions us very favorably with travel managers who are cutting costs in an aggressive way.?

Tony Pollard, president of the HAC agreed. ?People are looking for value and are seeking ways to reduce costs, but business travel must go on,? he said. ?When you have a downturn, it?s an opportunity to position your brand to fit the needs of the traveller. People are looking for upgraded rooms, complimentary breakfast and free Internet access. The current economic climate has created a real opportunity for travel companies to better care for their customers.?

LOYALTY PROGRAM USAGE INCREASES

Canadians have some of the highest levels of participation in loyalty programs, which will continue to reward travellers and help offset costs. The 2009 Hotel Association of Canada Travel Survey found that 54 percent of travellers considered rewards programs very important, up from 32 percent just a year ago. In addition, a mere 16 percent said they were not important

Aeroplan, Canada?s premier loyalty program with over 70 world-class partners, is leaning on its learning experiences from the past 25 years to successfully navigate the program during these challenging times.

?These days, business travellers are more likely to book with airlines, car rental companies and hotels that offer loyalty programs with good reward value, greater flexibility and more choices that they can take advantage of for personal travel with friends and family,? said Nathalie Belanger, general manager of rewards management at Aeroplan. ?We are also noticing anecdotal evidence of more small business owners redeeming their Aeroplan Miles for travel compared with years past.?

?Loyalty programs are definitely king as road warriors recognize their benefits and learn how to take full advantage of them,? said Dowling. ?Best Western is seeing the highest-ever usage levels of Best Western Rewards and we?re responding by offering promotions virtually every day of 2009, to continue rewarding our loyal customers.?

Bartrem echoed this, saying rewards programs are important and that WestJet intends to introduce its own frequent flyer program in mid-2009.