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What to give your favorite business traveler this holiday season

Thursday - 12/19/2013, 11:41am  ET

After plowing through dozens of "travel" gift guides, I've come to an inescapable conclusion: Nobody understands business travelers except those of us who do it.

To be charitable, business travelers are creatures of habit. We're not comfortable with optional changes and we're very protective of the rhythms of our daily schedules and the products and services we use. To be blunt, we're selfish. We want what we want and we're not interested in adjusting our movements and travel schedules to accommodate a well-meaning, but off-the-mark, gift.

Bottom line: If you're looking for presents for business travelers, play to their habits. Don't try to change them. Don't try to be too cute. Skip the whimsy. And if you really want your gift to have impact, buy a business traveler something he or she would buy themselves.

My suggestions for a last-minute gift are below. Some can still be delivered in time for Christmas. All should be in your hands before the end of the year. Which is fine since most business travelers I know hope to be basking in some holiday downtime over the next few weeks.

Buy where they sleep

Loyalty to airlines is strictly practical: most of us choose a carrier (or alliance) that can get us where we want to go. There's no real love or devotion there. Hotels are a different matter, however. Most big chains have hotels where we need to be and, corporate policy aside, our loyalty to a family of lodging brands is based on our personal style and taste.

Hotel chains recognize that we proactively choose them and they've built on-line stores that sell everything from the toiletries they put in the bathrooms to the specially branded beds on which we put our heads. If you know the chain a business traveler frequents, head to the hotel's online store because you can buy with a fairly high degree of confidence.

Westin, which started the branded-bed craze, sells its so-called Heavenly Bed for prices that start around $1,100. Hilton sells its easy-to-program alarm clock for about $40. Hyatt sells Herman Miller's line of desk chairs and Eames classic loungers, stools and ottomans. Marriott sells the stylish, minimalist vanity mirrors it places in bathrooms for as little as $65. Ritz-Carlton sells its Asprey bath amenities for around $17. In other words, you'll find something for every business traveler from a supplier he or she trusts.

Feed the lounge lizard

There are two kinds of business travelers: Those who are smart enough to have their airport club lounge access assured—and those who are too cheap to pay the comparatively small membership fees that the airlines charge. Either way, they both need club access because it is the best way to guarantee that we can increase our comfort and productivity at the airport.

In recent years, business travelers have used credit cards to secure their airport club access. But airlines (and the credit card companies that wag the aeronautic dog) have become more balkanized about club-lounge privileges. The most recent example: The newly merged American Airlines and US Airways announced last week that they are pulling their clubs from the American Express Lounge network next March. That means each of the remaining legacy airlines have given exclusive club-access privileges to their respective card-issuing bank: Delta Air Lines to American Express, United Airlines to Chase and American/US Airways to Citi.

That means smart travelers may look to traditional access methods--direct annual memberships--to secure club access and that opens a gift window. One-year memberships in the clubs run by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines can be purchased for $350 to $500 a year. Several carriers also sell three-year memberships.

Keeping them dry

Business travelers buy far too many cheap, disposable umbrellas from street vendors. (And have you noticed that they cost $5 regardless of city, continent or currency?) There is a better way—and a better umbrella. The $49 Davek Mini checks all the business travel boxes: It's tiny and ultra-portable (just seven inches closed); light (less than a pound); efficient (38 inches of coverage when opened); sturdy (it's made with a dense, 190-thread-count fabric); and reliable (it uses a manual open/close system). Best of all, it comes in four colors: black, red, turquoise and yellow.

A clear and present danger

Before the Transportation Security Administration saw danger lurking in our toothpaste and toiletries, business travelers reveled in their dopp kits. We use sumptuous ones of fine leather, stylish ones of trendy fabrics and exotic ones from tin or some other metal. Now we use plastic because the TSA's 3-1-1 rules insist on it. But that doesn't mean we have to keep using flimsy zip-top plastic bags. The F1 Clear Carry-on Quart Bag from Flight 001 has a real zipper and is constructed from thick, high-quality plastic. It meets TSA carry-on restrictions and costs just $10.

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© 2013 American City Business Journals, Inc.

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