CHICAGO - Companies that spend millions of dollars a year for international business travel are grappling with a new problem:
How exactly do their people plan trips to Europe and throughout the continent when a pesky Icelandic volcano not only makes a mess of airline schedules but could also continue spewing ash into the air for months, years, or even centuries?
No topic prompted more discussion than "the volcano" at the annual education conference of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives here last week.
As part of the same conversations, the travel managers talked of the need to increase their use of smartphones and other technologies, to help both those on the road and their colleagues back home communicate and keep track of one another during natural disasters.
At last year's conference, corporate officials were wondering how much worse the recession could get. This year there was a sense that business travel is slowly but steadily increasing. Companies are adjusting to airlines' increasing fares and adding fees to ticket prices while cutting their flight schedules.
But there was nothing that people wanted to talk about more than what to do when a company needs to send travelers across the Atlantic while Mother Nature continues to do her unpredictable thing in Iceland.
The association's president, Christopher Crowley, a senior vice president of BCD Travel, a major multinational travel-management firm based in London, used his own experience during the weeklong shutdown of European airspace in late April to talk about the problem.
Crowley found himself stuck for five days at a fancy golf resort in Florida when the ash cloud canceled his flight home and he couldn't immediately reschedule it. "After a time, it was not fun anymore," he said.
A volcanic eruption is something "nobody had a plan for," Crowley said. "It's introduced a level of uncertainty, and the last time this one erupted, it lasted 200 years."
Business travelers were generally luckier than vacationers, he said, because most of them had management companies (still known to most consumers as travel agencies) to help find ground transportation to cities in southern Europe where airports were still open.
Corporate travel policies, which dictate things such as when employees can fly first class and which hotels they must use, were widely disregarded by those caught in the chaotic situation, he said.
Crowley described how travelers had to scramble to get on jam-packed trains, and companies chartered dozens of buses to try to move employees around. Rental cars quickly became scarce, even with the rental companies jacking up rates and strangers carpooling. Some hotels used the situation as an opportunity to raise rates, he said.
Airlines were caught in the middle, forced to cancel and rebook passengers day after day on flights they hoped would operate, and ultimately suffering an estimated $3 billion in lost revenue and extra expense.
The chaos in Europe also provided an opening for technology companies to make pitches to the travel managers.
Cisco Systems Inc., the computer-networking company, kept a large meeting room open throughout the two days of the conference, where it had set up one of its "TelePresence Suites," a highly sophisticated example of videoconferencing equipment.
The TelePresence technology allows groups of people in two or more locations to sit around conference tables, using 65-inch high-definition video screens to talk to one another in a way that looks and feels as if they were meeting in the same room.
Cisco doesn't expect this latest advance in videoconferencing to eliminate the need for people to meet face-to-face, explained Astrid Gintz, a senior marketing manager.
But using TelePresence, either in installations a company can own or in ones it can rent by the hour in dozens of cites, can help companies cut travel costs while still holding important meetings even when volcanic ash is flying, she said.
Another lively conference session gave six men each 6½ minutes to make pitches for smartphone applications their companies have developed that are designed to give travelers up-to-the-minute information about their itineraries and travel plans.
One of the presenters was Johnny Thorsen, a Dane who is chief executive officer of ConTgo Ltd., a British company that has just struck a deal with American Express Co.'s business travel unit to put its application, named mobileXtend, on phones of Amex clients.
Mobile technology for travelers is the wave of the future, and "the volcano provided the greatest opportunity yet for mobile," Thorsen said. "Mobile devices were the only way to track and find travelers."