the art of the business trip

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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.

photo by Idle Type

17 comments

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  • Back in my academic career days I used to travel in the back of the plane and stay in hotels in the $80-150/day range. I also never quite understood the fascination with conferences and seminar travel. The former was often arranged at resort areas, probably to get people to show up, and I suspected the latter was a justification for having your friends over. Still, business travel seems to date back to a period before the phone and email or at least back to the people who don't use them. Indeed, eventually, the art became one of avoiding them although upper “management” kept insisting on them: Apparently going to conferences is an activity metric, more research gets done if you spend a quarter of the year doing the circuits (not!).

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  • Well written Steve, and I wholly agree! Travel lost its adventure for me a long, long time ago. In today’s economy you would think businesses would just about ban travel all together given the wide availability of internet tools. This afternoon I have a 2pm meeting…which I’m using my video conferencing service – Vonei Meeting. No drive time. No gas cost. No polution. Ok, maybe I’ll change out of my T-shirt, but I’m staying with shorts. The webcam won’t see below my chest!

  • A lot to comment on here, Steve. I was at a conference two weeks ago, and unforeseen exchanges with several people enabled me to immediately do my job better. That I don't think is possible with videoconferences and other less personal media.

    It's only since about 9/11 that I've had status on airlines. I get upgrades probably just over half of the time, which enables me to receive treatment close to that of a human being. Don't knock it – I'm not fighting to put my bag into the last overhead slot. I pay for my own airport lounges, and typically stay in midrange hotels (although I can tell you a story about a stay in a Super 8 last year! Free mice!).

    I can probably get out of some of this travel, but it's also good to get out of the office every once in a while. One of the dangers I see about not leaving the office is you tend to forget who your customer is. All too often I find myself ignoring the “customer” because I'm too busy trying to satisfy the guy across the hall. You need to refocus that perspective every once in a while.

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  • tammybrackett

    I rarely travel for business anymore and I do not miss it. I can handle everything via the phone and internet and am blessed little requires my actual presence. I'm a music publicist and PR person. The only time I'm traveling is when I must go to the post office!
    Thanks for a very timely post.

  • tammybrackett

    I rarely travel for business anymore and I do not miss it. I can handle everything via the phone and internet and am blessed little requires my actual presence. I'm a music publicist and PR person. The only time I'm traveling is when I must go to the post office!
    Thanks for a very timely post.

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