Editor’s note: The only business travel taking off around here is during rush hour.

October 20, 2013

When you are the editor of a local business publication, “travel” usually means a trip on the Red Line or a spin (crawl?) around the Capital Beltway.

I can say with confidence business travel of that sort is still going strong, even with all the gridlock in Washington.

Elsewhere, I’m not so sure.

Lately, I’ve done a fair amount of out-of-town travel myself, trying to keep up with my soccer-playing college sophomore. And I’ve been struck by how unbusiness-like my flight companions seem at our local airports. It used to be everyone had a laptop out, banging on a spreadsheet or marking up documents. Or maybe they were in the boarding area, talking hands-free, oblivious to those around them.

Now, not so much.

Like everything else in the economy, just when business travel looked to be leaving the doldrums in the rear view, companies are tapping the brakes again, especially around Washington. It wasn’t that long ago when I actually heard a television analyst recommending we all invest in airline stocks again; the trajectory of share prices in 2013 certainly seemed to indicate we were in takeoff mode.

But as staff writer Abha Bhattarai reported last week, D.C. area hotels experienced a 12.1 percent drop in revenue-per-available room during the first week of the shutdown, even as the key measure ticked up nationally.

You see signs of this caution in the local meetings and conferences space as well. Plenty of hotel managers, caterers and meeting planners were working the room hard at the Greater Washington Board of Trade’s recent fall social, hustling to drum up business.

Ridgewells chief executive Susan Lacz told CNBC it was bad enough she had to furlough employees from a subsidiary that runs the food service at the Capitol because of the shutdown. “Right before I got on air I got an e-mail and I am mad. Holiday parties are starting to cancel and that’s just not acceptable,” said Lasz, whose business depends on catering many of those events.

You could feel her utter frustration, and it’s not likely to simply vanish with one deal to reopen operations. The shutdown struck a blow to confidence, and it’ll take a while for that sting to subside.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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