A few days ago at work, I was reminded after telling a few stories about the glory days of travel across Europe, South America and Asia that business travel back then was significantly more prestigious/luxurious/etc. I don’t think you’ll see the kind of treatment I got back in the flush days of the late 90s and early 2000s ever again.
So what was fun about travel back in 1999/2000?
- Traveling first or business class: I never traveled coach. The thinking of most of the companies and/or clients I worked for or with was that heavy-duty international business travel demanded business class travel. It probably did – I often rolled off the plane, showered and headed to the office. You want to try that after spending 14 hours in coach from New York to Istanbul?
- Charging “actuals” for meals (in other words, whatever you spend, rather than being allotted $25 for dinner). And by meals, I include alcohol. If you took clients out the expectations were that you’d slam that Amex down like you’d just won at dominos. A dip in the martini wading pool was part of the evening.
- Staying at luxury hotels. It’s hard to define luxury, but to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s views on porn, I know it when I see it. My favorites? St. Martin’s Lane in London; the Grand Marriott in Bucharest and the Swissotel in Istanbul. Nowadays I think business travellers are lucky if they don’t have to double up with their coworkers at the Best Western.
- Drivers. I won’t say I always had drivers; depending on the location I might drive myself or take taxis. In Russia, I frequently hitched a ride. But having a dedicated driver was not unusual in places like Indonesia.
- Freedom from connectivity. Today, no matter where you travel in the world, it’s hard to claim a lack of connectivity. BlackBerries, GSM, and omnipresent Internet access in most modern countries make it hard to hide. This freedom was starting to die when I was traveling; toward the end of my career I received a GSM phone that worked in Europe. But I was able to set myself free in the evenings: once I went out to eat, I could legitimately claim not to have read emails.
- Isolation. Related to the freedom from connectivity, isolation gave me the opportunity to make a lot of decisions that today’s traveler has to run through supervisors. Much like a 19th century ambassador, I represented the home country while overseas; I didn’t have conference calls and video conferences making me into a staff gopher.
- Airport security. Before 9/11, crappy and pointless airport security existed. I am sure if I totalled up the hours I’ve spent in visa control at Sheremetyevo in Moscow I’d cry. But most of the delays were due to stupid red tape, not airport security guards trying to defend against yesterday’s terrorist tactics.
- Novelty. When I visited Romania, I was still unusual: an American. Not that there weren’t Americans there, but it was still a small novelty for many, many of the people I met. I’d belly up to the bar in the evenings and be surrounded by Germans, Russians or Italians, but seldom Americans. I imagine by now Americans are swarming over Eastern Europe.
- Before the end of the love affair with America. I’m sure many Americans sneer and scoff “so what” when I say that most of the world hated us – bitterly – after the Iraq War kicked off. I’m glad I traveled at a time when we had a president who was beloved even more than the current one overseas. I’m glad I didn’t have to say I was Canadian, like our security department warned us to say post-2003. I’m glad I traveled when people clapped me on the shoulder and asked me to tell Madonna and Bill Clinton that Czabo from Hungary said hi.
Even considering all of these advantages, I still got tired of business travel. I’ve told my colleagues many times that the tenth trip to Paris is just another stupid business trip. The novelty wears off. But times were better, and I’m glad I got my chance to enjoy the corporate excess when corporations were still excessive.