On the Road Again, More Warily
In his job as vice president for acquisitions and program planning at the Food Network, Bruce Seidel needs to travel to meetings in Tokyo and London. But recent events have taught him he definitely does not need to lug along a laptop.
"To bring it now means they have to take it out of the bag and open it up and turn it on," he said recently between meetings with corporate brass in Knoxville, Tenn., and Iron Chef
distributors in Paris."I bring a Palm Pilot. I'm simplifying things.
"I'm carrying as little as possible. I rarely check luggage; I carry a small bag. I want to be able to move quickly."
For Seidel, moving fast while the nation is on high alert means wearing slip-on shoes, not shoes that lace; using frequent-flyer status to get on shorter X-ray lines; and — in a move that would have been unthinkable earlier — staying in hotels closest to the airport.
Throughout the cable industry, strong security and a weak economy have prompted a closer look at air travel, a part of the business plan many executives, technical support staff, sales persons, customer service managers and program producers say that they had taken for granted.
Logistical hurdles put in place since Sept. 11 have led to small concessions — wearing identification around the neck, not wearing belt buckles, packing undergarments at the bottom of the carry-on — and more substantial ones:
"I'd say we've cut back our travel 15 or 20 percent," said Mike Horton, senior vice president of marketing communications at Atlanta-based Arris Group Inc., a supplierof cable telephony and high-speed data applications.
"These are tough economic times," Horton said. "And with tough economic times you look for ways to be more productive. We owe it to our shareholders."
Rather than waste time at airports, he and his counterparts are using new technology to do more long-distance work from the home office.
They drive or take trains to close-by destinations and send fewer people to fewer faraway meetings.
The airlines might not be happy to know it, but they have not been missed.
"The whole travel experience, with the additional time it takes, has made everybody realize that the meeting has to be really important to go to," said Lynn Picard, vice president of sales at Lifetime Television. She is based in New York City but runs offices in Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit.
FEWER DAY TRIPS
"I don't make as many day trips," Picard said. "I wait till I get four meetings together before I schedule them. If I want to see four people and only two are available, you wait. I think it makes you smarter."
The National Business Travel Association, citing various industry analyst reports, said corporate travel is down 30 percent from 2000.
The impact of Sept. 11 is difficult to gauge because an unknown number of air travelers have switched from business to economy class and are therefore not tracked, according to NBTA public relations manager Allison Marble.
In a March survey of 200 travel-company managers, the NBTA found a slight upturn in travel during the first quarter of the year. But ticket sales still remain 65 percent below levels of two years ago.
Most companies surveyed believe it will take a year or more and stable economy for travel to recover fully.
At Executive Travel, a Washington, D.C., company with numerous cable-industry clients, chairman Raiford Pierce reports a 16 percent drop in bookings among regular customers since September.
Pierce sees them slipping further as airlines discontinue discounts they introduced last winter.
Already, the Business Travel Association said domestic fares increased almost 8 percent from February to March.
Pierce says cost joins the list of reasons not to fly.
"Business travelers aren't afraid for their safety. Their biggest fear is being stranded,'' said Pierce, who counts GoodLife Television, C-SPAN, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Cable Telecommunications Association for Marketing among Executive's clients.
"It can be plain unpleasant to travel."
DON'T RELISH SEARCHES
Indeed, operator and programming executives who fly as much as a week per month report fewer choices in flights, which limits their options and assures a packed plane.
While the executives support the safety measures and the people who carry them out, the frequent flyers said they don't exactly look forward to removing their shoes, being chastised for carrying a nail file or wondering if a stranger in uniform will publicly display their personal items.
"The first time they check you over, you feel patriotic," said Charlie Bartolotta, senior vice president of customer operations at Mediacom Communications Corp. in Middletown, N.Y., who has continued to visit all 23 states he is responsible for. "By the third time, you lose your sense of humor."
And the lines those searches create have also been a problem. A National Geographic Television production team once waited two-and-a-half hours on a Baltimore-Washington International Airport security line before realizing there was no point: The agents were sure to announce express check-in for anyone in danger of missing a plane.
Mark Nelson, National Geographic's vice president of news, said one of his crews recently had so much trouble getting visas to travel from Peru to Brazil that they returned stateside — and had to plan another trip.
"One of our videographers has a metal screw in his arm and since Sept. 11, even though he tells the security people, they make him go through the whole operation every time," said Nelson. "Every time, it beeps and it's the biggest hassle in the world. They go through the whole search."
WATCH THAT GINSU
According to Food's Bruce Seidel, a colleague caused a similar stir when he attempted to get through a line with a television chef who happened to be carrying a huge knife in his bag.
Seidel had his own blood pressure raised the day he accidentally left his bag at the security station for 10 minutes after it was X-rayed. "When I realized, I panicked and ran back, and now all the security's looking at me and I'm wondering if I'll be arrested at that point," he said.
Returning home from his first overseas trip following the terrorist attacks, Seidel got a queasy feeling when the captain announced he was turning the plane back to Tokyo.
It turns out a passenger had become seriously ill. But the Japanese government required passengers to fill out immigration papers before they could deplane. Then, once that was done, the government decided not to let them off. They sat three hours more before once again taking off for Chicago.
"When we got to Chicago we waited another hour," Seidel said. "Then there was total chaos about the connecting flights, they had all these hours to figure it out and still had no information."
Twenty-six hours after leaving Japan the first time, Seidel was back in New York.
"They had lost my bags," he said. "I don't check them anymore."
END OF AN ERA?
With such experiences fresh in their minds, it is unlikely even an improved economy and an easing of security hassles will bring the cable industry back to the skies in the same numbers as before.
At Arris, for instance, Horton said the company was doing just fine conducting virtual meetings.
"We're using Web-based presentations and Web-based communications programs to try to control the amount of travel," he said. "We have the whole team being upgraded to high-speed communications and broadband connections so that they can enjoy the fruits of what they sell."
Mediacom executives are making use of the company jet, which can whisk them away more quickly than commercial planes, on their trips to and from the airports in Peoria, Ill., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the company is expanding, said John Pascarelli, senior vice president of marketing.
Lifetime's Picard is substituting teleconferences for the two-hour waits at the airport for what were often one-hour flights.
To Ron Pancratz, CableOne Inc.'s vice president of ad sales, air travel was aggravating enough before "wanding" and shoe removal became part of the experience.
Pancratz does anything he can to avoid it now, driving from his Phoenix offices whenever possible.
"The airlines are what the airlines are, which is ungrateful and unappreciative of the business traveler," he said from his car. "A lot of trips can't be planned in advance. They don't drop the fares, won't convert points to get you a decent fare on short notice. I can't imagine Sept. 11 has made this any better."
John Ellis, a spokesman for US Airways Group Inc., said his bosses are well aware that they have their work cut out for them.
He said the carrier is gradually restoring service to its former strength.
"We talk extensively with corporate travel managers and we are doing our best to really make the whole experience as smooth as possible," he said.
He urges business travelers to make use of the electronic-ticketing kiosks that can at least get them quickly through their first line.
The airline also recommends checking its Web site, which has a profiles of 40 airports and what it takes to get through them. Few, he said, actually warrant a two-hour wait from curb to gate.
"That is a myth," Ellis said.
He also noted that business travelers are making full use of the executive clubs where they can get high-speed Internet and other services. In fact, US Airways, which reduced operations 23 percent since the fall, said use of its business clubs has not dropped at all — an indication that the fewer travelers are on the clock when they are on the road.
HURRY UP AND WAIT
Plenty of people in the cable industry need to travel just as much as ever to do their job. When they do, they are getting to the airports sooner, often with a good idea of how this hub is different from the one they flew out of last week.
They are armed with the ever-smaller, ever-more-plentiful wireless devices that make them look as though they are talking to themselves. Then, they wait their turn.
"I have spent more than an hour and a half waiting to get to the X-ray machines and that is still amazing to me," said frequent flyer John Dyer, an East Coast-based Cox Communications Inc. manager with a West Coast jurisdiction. He has switched from hand-held cell phone to voice-activated microphone.
"I have the extra time and I try to use it as best I can. I know I look pretty geekish," he said. "And looking like I'm from the Secret Service hasn't helped me move up in the line."
The smarter way to stay on top of the multichannel video marketplace. Sign up below.