Services are more in tune with women's needs

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You're on a business trip, but you have a free evening so you decide to go out to eat. The restaurant is half empty, but you are shown to a table in a far corner, between the doors to the kitchen and the loos. Then one of two things happens: you are either completely ignored, or whisked through your meal at indigestion-inducing pace. At times like these, the travelling businesswoman must wonder why people can't treat her more like a man.

Of course, men don't enjoy eating on their own in restaurants either, and it's easy to mistake general poor service for bias. Top-class restaurants and hotels are far more likely to treat businesswomen well than somewhere that hasn't considered the needs of any of its customers for several decades. The best meal I ever had on my own was in the Taj Hotel in Bombay, where I was seated in a good position with a clear view of the musicians and dancers, and treated with great courtesy.

Simonetta Veltroni, who works for an advertising agency in London, agrees that it's the four-or-five star hotels that are more likely to consider the needs of women on their own. "Often about the only thing I notice is that the toiletries are sometimes more geared towards men - there's no moisturiser, for instance." There's no doubt that at least some hotels are making more of an effort to cater for their female guests. Lesley Thomson, director of a market research company, comments, "A good place is the Victoria and Albert in Manchester, which recently opened a wing of rooms for female guests with 24-hour closed-circuit TV and windows that can't be opened from the outside. It also has ironing boards and toiletries and loads of magazines in the rooms. You can either respond to that by saying 'Bloody hell, they're treating me as a vulnerable girlie', or you can say that it's actually quite thoughtful. Personally, I think it's quite thoughtful."

At Inter-Continental Hotels, the policy is to reserve certain rooms near the lifts for women executives who don't want to walk to the end of a deserted corridor. Security is a big concern, so staff are careful not to call out guests' room numbers or hand over keys without identification. A spokesman comments, "We are much more attuned to the needs of ladies travelling on their own than even just a few years ago."

But could they be doing better? Airlines, hotels, travel agents and so on all rely on feedback from customers to help them improve their services, and women are often reluctant to complain on the spot when something doesn't please them. Yet many of them feel that they get a raw deal compared with their male colleagues; a survey by Chambers Travel, a corporate travel management company, showed nearly half the women questioned believed men received better treatment from cabin staff, for instance.

"Trying hard - could do better" is the view of David Radcliffe, managing director of the leading independent business travel company Hogg Robinson. "The industry and my company are very aware of the needs of women travellers, and working hard to meet those concerns."

It is still difficult to shake off the view that the industry is focussed firmly on male travellers, especially when you see television adverts for airlines that only ever show the men being pampered by beautiful cabin staff. Helen Mirren has to make do with showing how much legroom there is; no dainty hands puffing up her pillow.

Receiving equal treatment with men isn't the only difficulty businesswomen often face. There's the sheer feeling of vulnerability that can come when you're in a strange country where attitudes to women are not the same as at home. The best way to alleviate the loneliness of being in a strange place is, of course, to team up with someone else. The Global Network (0171-722 9565), set up by a woman with 20 years' experience of business trips, can team up women who will be in the same place at the same time. Women Welcome Women (01494 465441) is not solely for business travellers, but members can find it useful to have contacts in cities they will be visiting for their work. Pat Daniel, a university lecturer, found it invaluable when she was in New York last year researching a book. Although she stayed in a hotel, she found the social contact made evenings much easier to deal with. "It gave a completely different side, the human side of New York. I just felt that, yes, New York could be a welcoming place."

Men get lonely on their own in big cities, too, but they're less likely to have to put up with unwanted attention or endure out-and-out harassment from someone they've inadvertently made eye contact with. No wonder many businesswomen often eat in their rooms and spend evenings reading books or watching TV. Room service can bring its own problems; it's almost inevitable that your order arrives just as you step out of the shower. Check through the spyhole (insist on a room with one). Better still, ask to be rung when your order leaves the kitchen, so you don't get caught out (they do it at the Victoria and Albert in Manchester).

Thomson is quietly optimistic about the future: "Hotels in particular are getting used to the idea of a lot of women travelling on business - but they can be patchy in how they approach it."