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How Hotels are Capitalizing on What Business Travelers Value Most

02/12/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Hotels have long catered to business travelers, and for good reason. According to a U.S. Travel Association report, direct spending by domestic and international business travelers in the U.S. totaled $266.5 billion in 2013, representing almost a third of all money spent by travelers in the country that year. Considering this amount and the frequency with which these individuals travel -- an average of 21 to 30 times per year, according to a report from American Express Global Business Travel -- hotels need to promise more than just a business center to appease this discerning group of frequent travelers.

To shed some light on the latest business traveler trends and how properties are adapting, U.S. News spoke with Pedro Paredes, vice president, global business consulting for American Express Global Business Travel. But if you're not a business traveler, why should you care? Because this group of globe-trotters is changing the hospitality industry in a way that affects leisure travelers, too.

Brand names are king
According to the GBT survey, business travelers consider a hotel's brand to be the most important factor in booking a hotel. Aside from the fact that established brands offer the opportunity to rack up rewards points across their various loyalty programs, brands also promise consistency in all their properties, regardless of the location. And, according to Paredes, consistency is critical.

This is true in part because brand names eliminate the element of surprise -- you're familiar with room layouts, food options, and the amenities and services offered. But also, as Paredes explained, the sense of familiarity is especially important to business travelers who want to bring some comforts from home with them as they travel. Paredes said he's noticed a growing trend of business travelers bringing along pets and loved ones when traveling for work.

"[Business travelers] are including a little bit more of their personal lives," Paredes said. "I think that's a trend that will continue. You want to feel like you're at home."

Free connectivity for all
Much like with leisure travelers, those jet-setting for business particularly appreciate free Wi-Fi access. In a 2014 survey conducted by Fortune Magazine and Travel + Leisure, 55 percent of the business travelers polled listed free Wi-Fi as their most valued amenity, and those surveyed in the GBT survey ranked free Wi-Fi as the second most important factor when selecting a hotel for a business trip.

"[Most high-end hotel chains] recognize the importance of it, and they're betting that by offering Wi-Fi, it's going to give them that much of an edge," Paredes said. He went on to explain that, in addition to costing more money, having to purchase Internet access on the company's dime encumbers business travelers with yet another expense to add to their ledgers.

Some brands have taken notice of travelers' wishes and offer free in-room Wi-Fi to all guests, including Joie De Vivre, La Quinta and Loews (Hyatt will offer free Wi-Fi to all guests starting Feb. 14). Others, including brands like Omni, Marriott and Kimpton also offer free Wi-Fi access, but only to members of their rewards programs (which are free to join).

Besides cost, the strength and reliability of a hotel's Wi-Fi services might be equally important. As more travelers conduct their business (and plan leisure activities) on an array of devices -- laptops, tablets, smartphones -- the limited amount of bandwidth a hotel has to offer can become a problem.

Paredes said that if you're accustomed to high-speed Internet at home or work, a hotel room with slow or unreliable connectivity is something you'll notice immediately. "[Hotels] have to invest to make sure the experience is what people would experience at home," he said. And while properties are usually happy to invest in bolstering their Internet services, sometimes poor connectivity is a result of a local Internet provider lacking adequate bandwidth, Paredes added. In terms of Internet speed, the United States is ranked just No. 26 for highest average download speed in the world, according to netindex.com.

A nontraditional check-in experience
In addition to fast, reliable and (perhaps most importantly) free Wi-Fi, some hotels are making strides to offer new technological amenities that can make business travelers' stays more productive and seamless.

One new amenity that travelers can soon expect to see from several major hotel chains is a smartphone app that allows you to check in, obtain a room number and enter your room, all without ever dealing with the front desk or touching a keycard.

"Being able to go to the room, bypass the front desk -- that's something that will change the way we do everything," Paredes said.

In November 2014, Starwood Hotels & Resorts became the first major hotel chain to roll out this amenity for Starwood Preferred Guest members, though it's only been implemented at a select number of Aloft, W and Element brand hotels so far. Hilton Hotels & Resorts announced plans to start implementing keyless entry programs in select properties in 2015. Marriott's mobile app already allows you to use your phone to check in and check out, however the brand does not yet offer keyless entry.

Trendy designs and unconventional lodging requests
One perhaps surprising discovery the GBT survey reported was that business travelers consider a number of unconventional lodging options for work trips, including bed and breakfasts, apartments, cabins, lodges, castles and tree houses.

Paredes said that though he's noticed more of these unusual lodging requests, he doesn't think it represents significantly increased demand. "At least in the business travel space, there's going to be consistent demand for traditional hotel rooms."

Still, some major brands, including Aloft, are focusing on atypical hotel designs in an effort to appeal to the next generation of business travelers: millennials. This branch of Starwood is known for its open-air lobbies and modern interiors and bars, though you might not notice the brand affiliation until you realize you can earn points as a Starwood Preferred Guest.

It's difficult to know exactly how hotel brands will adapt to the influx of younger generations joining the business traveler ranks. "Travel preferences change," Paredes said. "They're kind of hedging their bets, on the border between the two generations and their habits."

About the author: Stephen Johnson is an intern for the Travel section at U.S. News. You can email him at sjohnson@usnews.com.