Behind Many Hotel Changes Is a Woman

Carol Smith is a freelance business writer based in Pasadena

Women who travel frequently on business may not make up the majority of business travelers, but in many ways they are driving changes in the hotel industry.

Their smaller numbers belie the influence that female travelers have had on the hospitality industry.

"Female business travelers not only account for more than a third of all business travelers, but also are the fastest-growing segment within the category," according to Mack Koonce, executive vice president of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, a Dallas-based chain that recently sponsored a study of women's business-travel needs.

According to industry estimates, women constituted only 1% of the business travel marketplace in 1970, but are expected to account for half of all business travel by 2000.

In fact, many of the changes that now benefit all business travelers, such as more office equipment in rooms, business lounges with meeting space, better lighting in hallways and overall improved hotel security, were made in response to what women were telling hotel operators.

The travel industry is more responsive to the needs of female business travelers today, said Jeanne Epping, who travels frequently for her jobs as president of the American Society of Travel Agents and chief executive of Santa Cruz Travel. "In the beginning, it wasn't that way--10 years ago, it wasn't that way."

"Those special executive floors in hotels were prompted by women executives who travel," she said.

In fact, that's what happened at the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix, said hotel spokeswoman Kim Schmel. The hotel's club-level floor, which has a private concierge and requires a special elevator key for entrance, was so popular with female business travelers that the hotel converted a second floor to security-key status.

Also in response to requests from female travelers, the hotel now offers a captain's table in its dining room where single women (or men) who don't want to dine alone can eat with a member of the hotel's management staff.

In-room amenities and toiletries are other areas where hotels are scrambling to learn what appeals to women. A few years ago, you couldn't find ironing boards in any rooms, Epping said. Now more hotels offer them routinely.

Wyndham Hotels, for example, plans to have all its rooms equipped with irons and ironing boards this year.

Two Ritz-Carlton properties in Australia now offer complimentary hosiery on request, diet sodas in the mini-bar, complimentary mineral water and toiletries geared to women.

And the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong now offers video aerobics aimed at female guests.

Although hotels are trying different things to appeal to female business travelers, women themselves differ on what they want most. In some surveys, security is most important. In others, cleanliness and friendly staff outrank security concerns. Still others show that female business travelers prefer to stay in smaller hotels that have distinct personalities.

A few years ago, when the industry first began trying to figure out what female business travelers wanted, a few hotels tried creating "women-only" floors or converting some rooms for use exclusively by women. That effort backfired, however, with women indicating that they didn't appreciate the isolation.

To help sort out how women respond to various hotel efforts, Travelin' Woman newsletter is trying to get a base of hotel reviews for and by women who travel, Publisher Nancy Mills said. The newsletter recently launched a program to provide free hotel survey cards to any female road warrior who has been a hotel guest within the last six months (or is planning to stay in a hotel soon). The cards have checklists for items, such as magnifying mirror in the bathroom, coffee maker in the room and availability of irons. They also seek comment on comfort, security, location and business amenities.

"Presently, there is no vehicle for women travelers to be the eyes and ears for other women travelers," Mills said. Her goal is to publish the results of the survey in a city-by-city guidebook. (For more information, call [800] 871-6409, or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Travelin' Woman, 855 Moraga Drive, No. 14, Los Angeles, CA 90049.)

Joan Welch, president of Pennsylvania-based Welch International Corp., has spent 58 nights in 30 hotels within the last six months and has been diligent about filling out her survey cards. After staying at the Marriott O'Hare in Chicago, for example, Welch rated the hotel's location and room comfort high, but commented that outside access to the hotel's hallways made her uncomfortable.

Of course, what female travelers want most of all is not to be treated any differently than men, said Jeanne Datz, spokeswoman for Hilton Hotels in Los Angeles.

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According to a recent survey by the Travel Industry Assn. of America, women make up 38% of all business travelers, about the same as in 1991. Their absolute numbers continue to grow. In 1994, there were 14.6 million women traveling on business, compared with 12.1 million in 1989.

And although women take an even smaller percentage of all business trips (26% of the 221 million taken in 1994), that too is increasing. In 1991, women accounted for only 24% of the total business trips taken.

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