Barnett on Business Travel



January 26, 1992 -- Usually The Wall Street Journal's newshounds worldwide are sniffing out financial scandals and tracking corporate right and wrongdoing. But a new series of guides for business travelers unearth a bonanza of insider nuggets and money-saving tips for anyone planning a trip this year.

For openers, the guidebooks note that business travel is slowest in January. Hence, given the law of supply and demand, this may be the best time to negotiate for bargains among hotels and airlines. But scratch hard. Despite the recession, airlines kicked up prices on Jan. 1 - again.

However, the deals are there for the digging. While the discounted San Francisco to Los Angeles round- trip fare on United and USAir is $168, a three-day advanced purchase price is only $108. Airlines never trumpet that three-day APEX price, but similar deals can be found in most U.S. cities.

The Wall Street Journal "Guides to Business Travel," jointly developed with Fodor's Guides, the biggest U.S. travel guidebook publisher, don't include current airfares. They change on a minute-by-minute basis.

But if you're looking for restaurants in a foreign city for an intimate dinner, these $20 guidebooks are a wise investment.

The 60 contributing writers didn't have to be told "we were not interested in fluff," says Kristina Peterson, Fodor's publisher. "Instead, it's as if a business associate (meets you in a strange city) and takes you by the hand."

For example, where do chief executive officers take guests in their cities? Not always to "big name" restaurants but to 103 West in Atlanta, to Tony's in St. Louis, Primavera in New York City, Joe Muer's and The Lark in Detroit.

But these guides go far beyond where to fill your stomach. For anyone doing business, they are extraordinary. For instance, in the European guide, Edinburgh, Scotland, is described through a listing of its major industries and employers, how to contact trade development offices in the city and from the United States, that Glasgow Airport is the major point of entry for Edinburgh - not Edinburgh's own airport.

And it tells you cost, frequency and phone numbers for taxis, limos, bus service between airport and downtown.

Each city guide has lists of "important addresses and numbers," including the top messenger services, news programs, graphic design studios, formal-wear rental shops, computer rental offices, stationary supplies, where to rent an office for a short time and liquor stores.

There are tips on tipping - in Edinburgh a 10 percent tip is customary if a service charge isn't added - customary business hours, local holidays and protocol. Lounge bars in larger hotels are fine for meeting businessmen and businesswomen. And if you're toasting a Scot, says the guide, say "Slainte" (pronounced SLANN-che), a Gallic phrase meaning "Good health."

The guide ranks hotels by 29 different criteria ranging from the expertise of the clothes pressers to the proficiency of the translation service to how well the exercise room is equipped. A star means it's "highly recommended."

In Edinburgh, the pricey Caledonian Hotel and the reasonably priced Sibbet House - the latter an 18th- century terraced town house - have been granted stars. Fortunately, there is a range of prices for a variety of budgets.

The same holds true for dining. The guides stress, for instance, that business breakfasts are not a "widely accepted concept" in Edinburgh. On the other hand, after-work entertaining is popular, and Kalpna, a vegetarian Indian restaurant in the city's south side, is a moderately priced secret known only to locals, and a wise choice.

The guide advises visitors, "Don't be put off by the unremarkable facade among an ordinary row of shops, or by the low-key decor enlivened by Indian prints and fabric pictures. The food is unlike anything you are likely to encounter elsewhere in the city."

It also offers menu suggestions for the undecided. Try, it says, an Annapuran Thali set meal, and then it describes the taste of each dish. Every recommended restaurant is characterized in this understated, hype-free tone.

Edinburgh is just one of 30-plus cities described in the European guide. The Pacific Rim guide covers all the major metropolises of Asia/ Pacific - from Beijing to Bandar Seri Begawan in Borneo.

The U.S./Canadian guide takes a detailed look at 31 cities. A separate guide to international cities includes Boston and Brussels and Bangkok, Atlanta and Zurich, San Francisco and Sydney. It's worth a trip to your bookstore.

One final note: The Fodor people very cleverly packaged these guides in boxed sets that include individual, pocket-size city "booklets." If you're going to Vienna, why would you want to haul around Helsinki, the Hague, Lisbon, London, et al. For 31 city booklets and a slipcase to hold them, the price is a sensible $50.

Guide Michelin could learn a few things from reading The Wall Street Journal - guides, that is.

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.