RIGHT NOW, TRAVEL is a newsworthy topic. Mention it, and someone is bound to bring up the subject of deadly pneumonia or terrorist revenge attacks as the war against Iraq rages. But in reality, of course, the business person looking to do the best job possible has to grin and bear it, get to and from the airport, stay in hotels in foreign cities, utilise seminar rooms, eat food in airport cafes and, basically, travel. If the company (or the client) wants them to go, they have to go. Therefore, the organisers of Business Travel Expo 2003, which starts today at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, are expecting as many, if not more, attendees this year as visited the last expo. With companies tightening their belts substantially, people whose job it is to 'buy travel', to use industry jargon, will be looking for someone who can deliver the best overall deals when it comes to company travel. The Informer spent some time with the group's visiting event director Paul Robin to find out how the expo is faring in such difficult times. Q: How much interest in the expo are you expecting this year? A: Our registration is up about 30 per cent on last year. We never know until everyone turns up on the day, but it's encouraging. We have about the same number of exhibitors as we did last year (45 booths, 70 to 80 companies represented). It's hard to get people to commit to promoting when we're having hard economic times, but business travellers are their (airlines/hotels) most important customers and this expo is all about business travel. The essence of the show is to give direct contact to (travel-related operations) to people who buy travel. Q: Who buys travel? A: Most people don't think of themselves as buyers of travel . . . but it's anyone from the managing director to the personnel head to the secretary for a company who organises the staff travel. It is someone who has that as part of their job. Some travel budgets are hundreds of millions of US dollars. Q: How does a business get good deals? A: Volume is important. If you've got thousands of people travelling all over the world, then clearly, you're more attractive. It's really a buyer's market at the moment. In tough economic climates, it's very important for companies to make savings where they can. Since September 11, we saw an immediate downturn, but that came back pretty quickly. The first reaction is, 'Let's cut non-essential costs'. But I don't think it's that bad in Asia. Of course, companies have to look ahead and they need to plan their travel. Q: You have just arrived from London for the conference. Were you nervous about flying at a time like this? A: I'm here aren't I? I think it's probably safer now than ever as there's a lot more emphasis on security. I think it's more a problem of perception. Asia is such a massive business travel hub and we chose Hong Kong because of that and the interest in China in the region. Q: Do you think travelling regularly for business will become a thing of the past with so many new communication technologies being introduced? A: No. I think that when you're doing business, you like to meet the person you're doing business with, shake their hand. People like people. I do think video conferencing has its place. It's quite good when you already know the person and have some kind of relationship, but in general, people who go out for the business, they get the business. Q: How much do companies such as investment banks spend on business travel? A: The big global banks spend up to US$500 million a year. I know Unilever in the UK has spent about GBP300 million (about HK$3.65 billion) to GBP400 million. It's often the second-largest expense behind staff wages. Q: Where can companies cut back on travel expenditure? A: Well, we have a company policy of only travelling economy. Chauffeur-driven limo pick-up at the airport would be one thing for a company (to cut out). I remember the first time I came to Hong Kong and they sent a limo . . . but I think the Airport Express is fantastic. It's the perfect arrival experience. Hong Kong is built on the fact that it works. I think businesses are cutting back on the class of travel on airlines, but not compromising on the location or the quality of the hotel. When it comes down to it, creating the right impression for most companies is important. But, if you can't pay your bills, there comes a time when you have to look at your costs properly. The message at the show is that you can cut back, but you don't have to compromise. Q: How bad are things for the travel industry right now? A: They're a resilient bunch, but they're struggling. I think long term, travel will be up. I think there will be a lot of shake-outs and they will come through it. Q: Was the flight on your way out here busy? A: It was 70 to 80 per cent full (a colleague listening to the conversation yelled out: 'Business class was full'). But we're not launching Business Travel Baghdad just yet.