I just returned from my first business trip in almost four years. I thought I might rediscover the art of the business trip. But the art is gone. It changed a lot post-9/11. I was around to see that transformation – the relaxed and woefully security free trips became long and painful waits in endless security lines. Remember how you used to be able to go to the gates without a ticket to meet people? But what I hadn’t experienced yet was travel during the Great Recession. What little comfort there might have been for a middle manager or a consultant like myself is a thing of the past. Business class? Don’t be ridiculous. Meals on the plane, or even decent snacks? Not on these flights. Water? Endangered. Any sense of adventure or anticipation? Gone. Worth it? Not in my book.
Business travel remains a mystery to me. I have access to video conferencing, scanning, faxes, web conferencing and even collaborative online work environments like Google Docs. Why I need to go somewhere to accomplish my work comes down to a simple factor – the idea that somehow I benefit from peering into the eyes, the windows of the soul, of my clients (or maybe they benefit from peering into my bleary, red, post-airplane eyeballs). Does pressing flesh and sharing oxygen increase the value of professional work? I would be willing to bet that outside of sales or related functions, that’s a flimsy proposition. If you applied a cost benefit analysis to business travel – considering the airfare, hotel, cars, meals, and the simple loss of efficiency from tired, jet-lagged workers – you’d find a small benefit, if any.
Yet it continues. Shoes off, frequent flyer cards out, business travelers continue to move from one state to another for knowledge work. Physical presence can only be justified if somehow it facilitates human connection. People feel less intimidated by the auditor – or perhaps MORE – if the auditor appears on-site. Maybe in my line of work my physical presence is helpful in that it raises the level of fear, or respect, or builds trust. I know that I do a good job of putting people at ease; I’ve been doing this job long enough I know how to crack a joke and calm some nerves. In my opinion, though, it’s not a good enough reason to haul myself across country.
But as I departed on this business trip, I was at least a bit curious to see what travel is like after the end of the cushy years. I was accustomed to traveling business class, staying in higher-end hotels and cruising through airports via lounges and expedited security lanes. Even after 9-11, the idea was that if you were traveling heavily, you’d benefit from the perks because then (a) you might be more productive in-transit and (b) you wouldn’t quit the job so damn fast if they made sure you stayed fat and happy with nice dinners at high-class restaurants and threw in a company-paid dirty martini or two. I would haul out a computer in business class from time to time and catch up on work, sure. Can you do that in coach? Much tougher.
I am a good example of someone who got spoiled by the good times. I am ruined for the new days of frugal air travel. Those good times are never coming back, I suspect. For a certain level of professional, the good times are still there, but in these days when even Fortune 500 execs are being shamed into traveling with the commoners like me (and rightfully so), the art of the business trip lies mostly in the ability to avoid it.