The American travel industry is increasingly courting small business owners by creating programs designed specifically for their unique needs, reported the American Small Business Travelers Alliance (ASBTA). ASBTA is a national, non-profit alliance that provides valuable services and functions focused specifically on the travel needs and interests of small business owners.

"With small business employees accounting for more than 50 percent of the private work force, it's no wonder the travel industry is putting a major focus on marketing to that segment," said Chet Gray, ASBTA vice president of Sales and Marketing. "While most loyalty programs in the past have been designed for the individual or corporate traveler, new programs and services are now geared toward small businesses and their employees who travel."

Best Practices for Small Business Travel

Major carriers such as American Airlines have introduced enhanced loyalty programs that allow small businesses to manage business travel while earning award points. American's Business ExtrAA program (http://www.businessextraa.com), for example, enables both business owners and their employees to earn rewards on travel. Each time an employee uses his or her Business ExtrAA account number when purchasing qualifying tickets on American Airlines, American Eagle(R), or AmericanConnection(R), they earn AAdvantage(R) miles and the company earns Business ExtrAA points, redeemable for travel awards which may be used for future company travel or given as promotional gifts.

Similarly, National Car Rental's Business Partners Program (http://www.nationalcar.com) offers small businesses complimentary memberships for all traveling employees to the company's Emerald Club. This program enables members to skip long lines through expedited rental service at most airports and gives them access to exclusive reservation numbers. Small business travelers can also earn frequent flyer miles and coupons for use on leisure rentals through National's Business Program, while small businesses save money with benefits like unlimited mileage for round trip rentals when booked under the Business Partner Program.

"The best part of programs like those offered by American Airlines and National Car Rental is that they are in alignment with what travel industry experts agree are proven best practices for small business travel," said Gray. "Most travel experts will tell you that small business travelers generally save more money when they do most of their business with a few preferred travel service providers, such as a particular airline, car rental company or hotel chain. This practice also allows them to earn points faster toward free travel and many of the small business programs offer promotional coupons for free car rental days or free nights lodging for frequent patronage."

Save 10-20 Percent on Hotel Rates

Good programs prove that selecting preferred travel service providers does not necessarily mean limiting travel options. Hotel programs like Starwood Preferred Business (http://www.starwoodpreferredbusiness.com) allow small businesses to earn "Starpoints" for every eligible dollar spent at any of Starwood's hotels and resorts -- including Sheraton and Westin hotels -- whether they're traveling for business or leisure. Starpoints can be redeemed for free nights, free room upgrades, free airline flights and employee rewards. Companies that enroll now can also save 10 to 20 percent off Starwood's published corporate rates.

Small businesses that aren't members of or don't want to join a travel program can take advantage of services like Expedia's(R) Business Advantage program (http://www.expediabusinessadvantage.com), which was formally launched in late 2004. Businesses enrolled in this free online service have access to the many advantages normally offered only to paid members of Expedia's(R) Corporate Travel site, including business-friendly rates and special offers for flights, hotels and car rentals, as well as corporate agent support.

"Programs like these are just a few examples of how the travel industry is really beginning to recognize that the historically overlooked small business traveler is just as important as the corporate traveler," said Gray. "I think we'll continue to see more programs designed expressly for small business travelers launched in the months ahead. Then it will just be a matter of ensuring small businesses are aware of them, which is what the ASBTA plans to do."

Discounts for Travel to Meetings

In addition to providing discount and reward programs, leading companies are also offering services that help small businesses plan and coordinate meetings and conventions that require travel. For instance, National Car Rental offers the On the Go Meeting & Convention Program, which provides guaranteed rates for pre-planned meetings or conventions, customized materials for meeting and convention attendees, as well as many other valuable benefits.

Small businesses that arrange travel for their next meeting through American Airlines can receive five percent off published fares and 10 percent off full Coach, Business or First Class airfare when 10 or people more fly American. For meetings of 10 or more, American guarantees domestic zone fare discounts ranging from 40 to 70 percent off full, unrestricted Coach rates. Zone fares require no Saturday-night stay, so they're perfect for mid-week meetings.

"As you investigate these programs, you really begin to see how small businesses can multiply their savings by taking advantage of them today," said Gray. "By carefully choosing the reward and discount programs that work best for their particular needs and combining them with free services like Expedia(R) Business Advantage, small businesses can travel like the 'big boys' and save money at the same time."