To Forecast Corporate Travel Prices, Ignore Airline and Hotel Costs and Pull Out the Steak Knife

Economists like to point to the "Big Mac Index" to understand the relative purchasing power and cost of buying a burger in different world markets. Yet in the corporate travel world, at least in North America, a slightly more expensive cut of beef may be a far more accurate predictor of where prices are headed and our own corporate travel buying power. A recent article that hit the Medill news service suggests that Morton's Restaurant group performance is riding a slowly expanding tide of business travel. According to the story, "The Chicago-based upscale steakhouse company, which is reliant on business travel and entertainment spending, saw a precipitous drop in its sales during the Great Recession."

Yet 2010 saw the infamous steak house chain bounce back. Specifically, sales "turned positive in the first quarter of 2010 for the first time since 2008 ... [and] Morton's was able to sustain the upswing throughout the year with the help of a two-pronged marketing campaign aimed at boosting bar sales and luring business customers back." Why does this matter as an indicator for business travel? "Some 80 percent of Morton's sales end up on an expense account," according to one sell-side equity research analyst quoted in the article. While Morton's revenue growth, expected to come in at 4.3% 2010 and 8% in 2011, is not directly indicative of business travel trends, they're about as close as any leading indicator gets. Accordingly, "the NBTA predicts U.S. business travel spending will be 6.7 percent higher in the first quarter of 2011, compared with the first quarter of 2010, and will return to peak levels by the end of 2012."

So in other words, if you're a corporate travel manager (or the head of procurement looking to refine your corporate travel sourcing approach), it might make sense to lock in longer-term rates and discounts if possible, consolidating spend and driving it to preferred carriers, hotels, car providers and even restaurant groups (that offer discounts). Now, this is not to say that Morton's is a perfect indicator of business travel trends. Rumor is that my friend Paul Martyn, a former chef and now marketing executive at a procurement provider, has been experimenting the commandeering of his family's refrigerator to conduct his own "dry aging" experiments, alleviating the urge to go to expensive steak houses when on the road. But for the rest of us, whose wives will not tolerate five pounds of rib eye or porterhouse exposed in the fridge for weeks on end, perhaps Morton's really is calling us more and more as we hit the road to entertain more frequently.

- Jason Busch

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