On the Road
By JOE SHARKEY
I’M happy to be at an age where I am not intimidated by a lot of things that don’t have sharp fangs or a firing mechanism. Nevertheless, Starbucks intimidates me, which I note here today because Starbucks, without much patronage from people like me, is the restaurant brand that most often turns up on business travelers’ expense accounts.
“Huh?” you might ask, as I did. The distinction seems to be partly attributable to the increasing numbers of travelers in the so-called millennial generation, for whom a Starbucks or a McDonald’s offers things that younger business travelers especially seek: convenience, value, familiarity and (not least) the availability of Wi-Fi.
Starbucks was the most often expensed food and beverage brand in the third-quarter 2014 spending report by Certify, a company that manages corporate expense account processing. After Starbucks (average receipt $10.83) the next four brands on the list are McDonald’s ($7.66), Subway ($14.99), Panera Bread ($37.61) and Dunkin’ Donuts ($11.34).
On the road, I certainly look for convenience and value, just as millennials do. But I mostly avoid those omnipresent Starbucks because, frankly, I am of a generation that has not learned the lingo. I recently ventured into a Starbucks in Los Angeles and ordered my usual, which I can readily obtain without further discussion in any New York City bodega: A large black coffee, please.
“Venti?” asked the barista. Like a tourist who doesn’t speak the language, I made a clumsy hand gesture to indicate the approximate size of the coffee I wanted.
“Venti!” she concluded. In the Starbucks vernacular “venti” is rhymed with “plenty,” and not “dainty,” as it would be in Italy. I gratefully obtained my 20-ouncer. As I fled, a young man waiting impatiently behind me stepped up and declaimed a long sentence that included the words “doppio” and “macchiato,” and could have been uttered in Serbo-Croatian, for all I knew. (Online, you can even find detailed instructions for ordering at Starbucks.)
The Certify expense account rankings encompass more than a cup of coffee, of course. Starbucks, for example, maintains its top rank because of obvious convenience (there are more than 20,000 of them around the world, 13,500 in the United States), an extensive drinks selection and a growing food menu (food now makes up more than 20 percent of sales, Starbucks says.) Also, explained Robert Neveu, Certify’s chief executive, “Wi-Fi is a key driver, along with consistent quality of the food.”
Here are the rest of the brands among the 15 most-often-expensed restaurants, according to Certify’s analysis of millions of individual expense reports from last quarter: HMSHost ($16.17); Chick Fil-A ($22.01); Wendy’s ($9.32); Burger King ($8.85); Applebee’s ($34.93); Chipotle ($23.90); Jimmy John’s ($39.17); Chili’s ($34.18); Taco Bell ($8.81); and Arby’s ($10.11).
Expense account processing, which is increasingly being done by cloud-based management companies like Certify, Concur and others, is important because travel and entertainment spending is many companies’ second-largest controllable expense, after salaries and benefits, Concur says. Concur recently formed partnerships with Airbnb and Uber, reflecting “the transformation taking place” with the impact of younger travelers, said Tim MacDonald, Concur’s executive vice president for platform and data services.
On business travel expense accounts, meals are typically the third-largest cost, after airfare and lodging. But while rates for air travel and hotels have been rising, travelers have far greater control over where they eat. There’s a stereotypical image of a well-heeled business traveler downing a $40 porterhouse steak with a $100 bottle of wine, and that certainly still is true. But as the Certify report shows, business travelers of all ages are more often grabbing a meal on the run, or eating at familiar chain restaurants clustered on highways near airport hotels.
“They’re grabbing something between flights or meetings and going for convenience,” Mr. Neveu said.
The downscaling of dining on the road was reflected last year in a report by Concur that examined $50 billion in clients’ travel expenses and found that spending on meals had dropped 11 percent in 2012. That trend is continuing, driven in large part by younger travelers who might have a Bacon McDouble and Dr Pepper for dinner at McDonald’s, or a chicken lettuce wrap with a caramel flan latte for lunch at Starbucks — consumed while working on a mobile device.
There’s another evolving trend tied largely to the behavior of millennials that warrants further examination. Rocketrip, a recent start-up, offers an incentive-based platform that provides monetary rewards to business travelers who spend less on a trip than company policy usually allows.
“Give an employee a budget with no motivation to spend less and the expectation is they’ll spend the budget. But if I give you a budget and tell you for every dollar you save, you’re going to get half back, that conversation gets interesting pretty quickly — especially if you are a millennial business traveler not making a very high salary,” said Dan Ruch, Rocketrip’s chief executive.
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