Last year, more than 6.4 million business travelers spent roughly $25 billion on trips (13 percent of those trips for meetings) outside North America, according to the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries (OTTI). That represented a decline of one million travelers compared to 2008. But in the first four months of 2010, international business travel is finally showing positive growth again – up about 1.5 percent.

“The meetings industry in the U.S. is beginning to awaken again after an 18 month period of suspended animation due to the dual effects of economic downturn and negative publicity around meetings,” says Padraic Gilligan, vice president of destination management at MCI Group, Dublin, Ireland, a global event management company. “There is definitely pent up demand for international travel, but trips will tend to be shorter in duration and will operate with a focus on authenticity over luxury.”

U.S. Business Travelers Overseas

So where are international business travelers heading next? Deciding factors include affordable air access, excellent service, value, security and the potential opportunities they offer, particularly in emerging markets. “It is clear that the Middle Eastern destinations are continuing to invest heavily in their infrastructure—producing large-scale and state-of-the-art facilities for meetings and conventions that are very professionally run,” says Carina Bauer, chief executive officer for IMEX Group, East Sussex, U.K.

Bauer observes a steady increase in popularity of Asian markets, such as Sri Lanka, India, Macau, Seoul, South Korea, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and Taiwan. And Latin America countries—recognized for offering good value for the money—are maturing, too, including Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador, among others. Here’s a recap of the performance of world regions last year.

Asia. Despite the long-haul travel, roughly 2.4 million U.S. business travelers went to Asia in 2009. Japan is the established market (642,400 business visitors), but several other Asian destinations will capture more attention in the next few years. With nearly 450,000 business travelers last year, China may soon be at the top of the list. At press time August 17, China had just overtaken Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.

Middle East. Nearly 514,000 business travelers visited this region in 2009—a 16 percent increase over 2008. While Israel is an established market for American business travel, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates have invested steadily in their infrastructure and have the most attention in the region. As long as threatened BlackBerry bans don’t scare off business groups, the emirates’ popularity should keep on rising.

South America. Nearly 514,000 business travelers went to South America in 2009, a decrease of less than one percent from 2008. With the 2016 Olympics scheduled in Rio de Janeiro and with Brazil serving as a major hub for key industries such as oil and gas, banking, food, materials, and utilities, there is strong growth potential in this region, which hosted nearly 193,000 U.S. business visitors last year.

Europe. Nearly 2.4 million business travelers went to Europe last year (95 percent of them to Western Europe). Europe attracts more than one-third of all U.S. business travelers who head overseas. Top markets (in order) are the U.K., Germany, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain.

“When corporations or associations make the destination decision themselves, then established European destinations like France, Spain, and Italy continue to be popular. [For incentive programs,] Mediterranean and Baltic cruises remain very popular and tick many boxes: value, security, convenience,” says Gilligan. “Secondary EU destinations such as Ireland, the Czech Republic, and Scotland are also on the radar for smaller boutique meetings.”

And to be sure, border countries Mexico and Canada see a significant share of U.S. business travelers. Nearly 3.5 million business visitors traveled to Mexico in 2009, according to the Mexico Tourism Board. And roughly 1.75 million business travelers visited Canada, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission.

The U.S. International Business Traveler Profile

Regardless of whether the purpose is to attend an international association meeting, host a global client conference, launch products in a new destination or another business event, the fact is that international business happens every day and people must meet.

They’re not corporate jet-setters. Business travelers are focused on achieving goals, and doing this in a cost effective manner. According to OTTI, some statistics about international business travelers in 2009:

  • Average total trip cost: $3,868
  • Flying coach: 73%
  • Staying in hotels: 72%
  • Traveling alone: 64%
  • Average room nights per trip: 8.8