Four years on from 11 September 2001, the relationship between the airline industry and event organisers is still not a happy one. As a consequence of the attacks on New York, cost-cutting procedures and increased security measures replaced many of the usual benefits offered to groups, such as dedicated check-in and VIP treatment.
Although organisers and their clients now have lower expectations regarding VIP treatment in airport terminals, they still expect good onboard service - but are they getting it? Add to this the lack of flexibility when it comes to group bookings, and organisers are finding much to complain about.
Issues, such as non-refundable deposits, not being able to change names on tickets once they've been issued and being unable to seat partners together, are affecting ad hoc group business, according to Spencer Scott Travel managing director Liz Drake. "We cannot always be certain that a group will happen. Many airlines only allow you to lose ten to 20 per cent of a group without incurring penalties on your deposit."
Tickets are often issued as early as six weeks prior to travel, and any cancellations or changes incur penalties. The problem with this situation, says Travel Talk II managing partner Richard Hunstone, is that "incentive programmes often don't finish until a month or so before the trip itself, so we don't know names until it's too late."
Once the difficulties of confirming a group have been overcome, the logistical problems for organisers continue. Because airlines refuse to seat group members together - including married couples - and only allow a small percentage of delegates per group to extend their trips into leisure time, it makes it difficult for organisers to turn the flight itself into a part of the incentive.
As Motivation Travel Management managing director John Lawson notes: "The flight is extremely important, particularly the homeward journey, because this makes the final impression. If delegates aren't catered for properly, the irritation they experience is what they will remember of the trip."
Business and leisure
There are airlines that are more flexible than others, among them Qantas and Gulf Air. Qantas allows any number of group members to extend their visit. "We want to convert enquiries into bookings," says regional general manager Stephen Thompson. "To do that we must harness C&I travel to leisure travel. Business travellers can use our domestic connections to access all Australian hubs."
Gulf Air has created a new department for special services, with the aim of growing C&I business from its current level of ten per cent, according to key account manager for groups, conferences and incentives Jo Copestake.
"Following feedback, we found that pre-seating was a real issue. So we have done something about it and ask organisers to send through their seating requests in advance."
Service standards slump
A year ago, clients were still bemoaning the demise of VIP airport services, but now organisers have come to terms with the need for groups to adhere to the same rigorous security checks imposed on the public. The problem is that this same lack of attention and recognition seems to be creeping on board too.
"We had a pretty bad experience with the service on a South African Airways flight," says Hunstone. "On an 11-hour flight last year there was only one water and one bar service. It's no good leaving an open bar at the back because if the person in the aisle seat is asleep you can't get to it. And on that same flight there were four broken seats."
But South African Airlines is not alone; the survey pointed to a general decline in service on-board . "Staff motivation seems to be very low on European carriers," says Lynton Cooper director Paul Evans. "Service standards are suffering as a consequence. It's almost as if the crew has forgotten why it's there - which is to make sure passengers are comfortable."
Carriers bucking the trend include Middle Eastern airlines Emirates, Gulf Air and Etihad, along with Continental, Virgin and Malaysia Airlines. "The attitude of cabin staff is what matters, and this is where Emirates, Continental and Virgin score highly," says CMM managing director Eamonn Hamilton.
"Even in economy class they really attend to our groups." Drake adds: "The Far East and Arabian carriers are much better at hospitality because it's part of their culture."
However, the lasting taste in the organiser's mouth is one of bitterness.
"We have to ask for service from airlines, whereas it should be offered," said Cartel Group Holdings head of corporate business John Agha. "They need to be more proactive in attracting the corporate market. We definitely choose our destinations according to which airlines we want to use, so those offering poor service do lose out."
Is big better?
The general dissatisfaction with service standards and flexibility could explain why the new Airbus 380 has not been met with greater enthusiasm by event organisers.
The aircraft will fly further than any other and will have room for a variety of on-board facilities such as gyms and cinemas. It is being touted by airlines as revolutionising the flight experience. Organisers, however, are sceptical, as new and exciting on-board facilities will not make the existing problems easier to contend with, and many organisers see the current facilities as adequate: "The on-board in-flight technology offered by most airlines suits our clients perfectly well," says Hamilton.
Seat pitch is important for Hunstone. "If that isn't going to be bigger, then when I fly to Australia I would probably rather stop over and have the chance to walk about rather than fly straight there," he says.
And Drake poses a timely question: "How long will it take to get all the passengers on and off an aircraft that big?" Increased boarding time, as well as the Airbus's ability to be evacuated within the required 90 seconds in case of emergency are issues still to be ironed out.
Addressing the issues
There is something of a lack of goodwill between airlines and organisers at present. Increasingly, organisers feel sidelined by airlines that do not appear to be chasing or catering for corporate business, despite the fact that they offer airlines block bookings and repeat business. As Agha says: "The customer just isn't king any more."
The hope is that airlines will address these issues before the already simmering relations with the C&I industry boil over.
Air New Zealand www.airnewzealand.co.uk Tel 020 8600 7649
Air France www.airfrance.co.uk Tel 020 8742 6601
Cathay Pacific www.cathaypacific.com/uk Tel 020 8834 8899
Delta Airlines www.delta.com Tel 0800 525 308
Iberia Airlines www.iberiaairlines.co.uk Tel 020 8222 8993
Icelandair www.icelandair.co.uk Tel 0870 787 4020
LOT Polish Airlines www.lot.com Tel 0870 414 0088
Lufthansa www.lufthansa.co.uk Tel 0870 833 0310
Maersk www.maersk-air.com Tel 020 7333 0064
SAS www.scandinavian.net Tel 0870 600 7757
Singapore Airlines www.singaporeair.com Tel 020 8563 6728
TAP Air Portugal www.tap-airportugal.co.uk Tel 0870 442 4737
Thai Airways www.thaiairways.co.uk Tel 020 7491 7953
United Airlines www.unitedairlines.co.uk Tel 0845 844 4777
Increased public awareness of low-cost flights seems to be causing havoc in the events industry. As more and more '99p' flights are brought onto the market, clients don't understand why scheduled carriers should cost so much more.
CMM managing director Eamonn Hamilton says: "Many clients think that they can achieve those rates on scheduled airlines for their groups, but the reality is that group rates are very rarely the most competitive, and scheduled carriers will never meet low-cost prices."
And for clients who request to fly low-cost he adds: "Many low-cost carriers don't want group business and so don't cater for it. Often they don't have a groups department and seating is allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, which is no good for groups."
For Travel Talk II managing partner Richard Hunstone, the key issue with low-cost carriers is reliability, rather than price. "If a scheduled airline only has a few passengers on board it will still fly, whereas a low-cost carrier will find an excuse not to. It will say the plane's got technical problems and will cancel the flight. You can have more trust in a scheduled carrier."
It seems that only where cost-conscious clients are aware that low-cost carriers are known as 'no frills' for a reason, are organisers happy to oblige. "With a low-cost carrier you know what you're getting - a seat," says Hunstone. "If a client understands that and is happy with it, we will book it."
It is not just organisers who find low-cost airlines a problem, however.
"Airlines that lower prices to match the low-cost prices and gain market share ruin business for those of us who are reasonably priced," says Malaysia Airlines regional manager UK & Europe Sharifuddin Bapu. "We are trying to invest in customer comfort - we have just put £100m into new business class seats - and now we need good capacity at reasonable prices to cover the cost."
So how much value does the flight add to an incentive programme? Ultimately it depends on the client. Those high-end delegates who can afford business class facilities want to be pampered from the minute they arrive at the airport. For others, the airlines simply provide a means to an end, with the destination itself the motivational part of the trip.