Nickeled and Dimed By Hotels, Airlines

Most people in the film and TV business would gladly do away with the “glamour” of traveling. Just imagining a stopover at Heathrow or Dallas-Fort Worth airport is enough to make an executive shiver. It seems that today’s airports are set up to slow you down and will do anything possible to make the visit unbearable. But the unfriendliness of airports is not the only problem. Travelers are also confronted by high airline fares and hotel rates, combined with lower-quality services and a less accommodating attitudes.

On top of this, there is a general tendency for all involved in the travel industry to nickel and dime consumers to the point of exasperation. There are reports that, in addition to the infamous $4 cup of coffee, some hotels now charge “cleaning fees.” In one reported case in the Miami Herald, a hotel guest paid $95 per night for a room, plus a $166 cleaning fee. This fee is usually indicated in fine print, and goes mostly unseen by travelers, but is rarely refunded by the reservation agency or credit card company.

Not to be outdone, airlines now charge for extra luggage, food, drinks, earphones, movies, blankets and, if available, on-board Internet service. Plus, to punish passengers even more, airlines have made trips longer by slowing down to a speed comparable to that of a German driver on the Autobahn. Airlines such as Jet Blue stand to save $6.8 million a year by lengthening their flights by just one minute.

This sad state of affairs in the traveling sector forces entertainment professionals to travel less and rely instead on conventions and trade shows, where executives can meet a number of clients in one setting. For this reason conventions continue to grow in number. Recently, Rome TV Market and Florida Media Market joined the convention circuit and, in 2009, DISCOP Africa and possibly an organized market for the Toronto Film Festival, will both debut.

The inhospitability of airports is out of this world. Passengers face long lines at check-in counters and even longer lines at security points, where people wait to disrobe before slow-moving security guards.

Once finally inside the boarding area, few electrical outlets leave execs unable to plug in laptops, and the cost of Wi-Fi service is often an outright scam. Most airports offer Internet service in increments of 24 hours, disregarding the fact that no one remains at the airport for more than a few hours. And it’s not unusual to find, like at the Budapest Airport, that after being over-charged, the password doesn’t even work! Naturally, everything costs more at airports, from the bottled water to the mass transit tickets to and from nearby cities. To the transport industry, passengers seem to just be hapless chumps waiting to be bled dry of all their money.

Naturally, finding a decent restaurant at an airport is like searching for a Yeti. Only fast food stands are available and, when one is lucky enough to find a restaurant with sit-down service, it tends to be closed at lunch or dinner time (e.g., Delta terminals at JFK). Once passengers are taken to the cleaners by airports, the suckers are turned over to airlines to be further plucked.

Starting June 15, American Airlines was the first to begin charging customers a fee to check luggage. Passengers are now expected to pay $15 for a single bag and $25 for two. Other airlines were quick to follow suit. Likewise, in lieu of a complimentary in-flight meal, airlines like Delta now offer a pay menu, with $8 and $9 entrées and $3 snacks. In the past, passengers were sometimes required to pay a headset fee to see a movie. Today, airlines charge for the headset, which has shrunken into an earpiece, as well as for each individual movie.

JetBlue provides the most preposterous example of the trend: flight attendants collect $7 for a pillow and blanket. Customers on flights longer than two hours are invited to buy the so-called “World’s Cleanest Travel Kit,” which includes an eco-friendly pillow and blanket and a coupon to home furnishing store Bed Bath & Beyond.

Neal Lloyd, hotel coordinator for the Los Angeles Screenings, which takes place in May, pointed out that another headache comes in the form of hotel cancellation policies, which can be costly for market participants. Block reservations can be subject to cancellation fees as high as $10,000 for a 170-room reservation. Lloyd also stressed that hotel management changes, which are even more abundant than airline buy-outs, can be a nightmare for both market organizers and participants.

One of the biggest factors influencing globetrotting execs is the U.S. recession. The international repercussions of the ailing U.S. economy have not been all bad, especially for Europeans visiting the U.S. But within the U.S., the declining dollar has changed the way TV companies approach markets. Lloyd suggested that the exchange rate has caused many firms to reevaluate the importance of conferences outside the U.S. “Internationally, the weakness of the dollar has affected us,” he said. “U.S. TV companies, for example, are looking at budgets and making some cutbacks. They’ve been forced to decide which shows overseas give them a bigger bang for their buck.”

But while the weak dollar has put a damper on the convention plans of U.S. companies and taken a toll on Americans abroad, it has caused an influx of international travelers to the U.S. The strength of the euro, the British pound and Asian currencies over the U.S. dollar have made conferences in America more attractive to foreign execs.

Maritza Guimet, organizer of Miami’s Florida Media Market, which will take place at the Alexander Hotel October 23-25, told VideoAge that attendance figures were up because of the falling dollar. “So far, interest has been much greater than last year, especially from the international crowd,” she said. Lloyd noted a similar trend at his event, observing that at 2008’s L.A. Screenings, many European execs “stayed on longer.”

Patrick Jucaud, organizer of DISCOP East, which was held this year in Budapest in June, explained that Europeans and Latin Americans made up a large portion of DISCOP participants. Additionally, Jucaud noted “the impact of higher travel, marketing, and currency exchange costs is negligible if one compares it to the fast-growing value of the Central and Eastern European television content marketplace.” Simply put, nowadays, to be able to afford traveling, companies have to sell more.

But with airlines constantly inventing unique ways to empty their consumers’ pockets, organizers will have to work overtime to bring the crowds to their events. Jucaud and his team have so far avoided losing participants through careful research. “Our research department follows the growth of the region very closely in order to identify new buyers and get them to the event,” he said. If they hope to combat the growing nuisance of travel, other market coordinators would be wise to do the same.

In the final analysis, the travel sector has been negatively affected by deregulation. On one hand it created a laissez-faire system, for which travelers are paying the price in terms of safety — as recently demonstrated when the FAA (the U.S. airline authority) grounded an aircraft deemed unfit to fly — and the airlines are paying in terms of more artificially created competition. ES