Picture jumping on a red-eye flight, knowing you’ll be getting off the plane on the other coast in five hours and heading straight to a client pitch meeting. Now picture an hour into it you realize you’ve got a snorer on one side, no legroom as someone mercilessly jams the seat back in front of you, and a growling stomach that hates you for not eating before you rushed to the gate. You’re not just dreading the next four hours; you’re dreading ever getting on a plane for business travel again.
Though there are some positive signs for business travelers, The New Yorker‘s recent article “Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer” effectively illustrates the airline industry’s perverse incentives to abuse us regularly. In direct opposition to the old strategic management calculus of rewarding the best travelers with the best perks while keeping the other levels of travel enjoyable, an across-the-board downward shift (think tighter seats, more penalty fees, not even a bag of peanuts) has maintained the illusion of status for some elites while shrinking overall costs. Sadly, making the pain points of discount travel ever more uncomfortable just makes the perceived value of premium travel better, even if it’s no longer so in relative terms to the past.
The increasingly painful business travel scenario is an excruciating combination of normalization of deviance, where we adjust to slightly worse quality as the new norm each year, with a strong dose of embracing our airline captors’ ever-escalating fee structure in a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Business travel never seemed less rosy.
Next, consider that as the quality of the air travel experience has decreased, the quality and value of increasingly robust online communication platforms (Skype, Google Hangout, GoToMeeting, et al.) has escalated. Using this greatly-improved technology would make it seem as though business travel can finally be a reduced strategic management priority.
In spite of these drawbacks, business travel is still crucial to your company’s culture and your bottom line. Before deciding to quit, or significantly cut back on, the business travel game altogether, let’s review some of the continued benefits, especially for businesses with global ambitions.
There is still no “as-good-as” substitute for face-to-face interaction when it comes to building rapport. The need to properly build rapport this way is especially high outside the US market, where the experience of being together is culturally crucial to building trusting relationships.
A few years ago I found myself in Portugal on a mix of business and pleasure. After having spent some days tackling business in Lisbon, I took the train up to Porto for a few days of exploring. The founder of a startup I had missed connecting with in Lisbon wrote to me that he was sorry we missed meeting but would love to do dinner. When he figured out that I was already in Porto he could have offered to Skype with me instead, but he wasn’t deterred. He made the three-hour drive up to Porto to meet in person to tell me all about his startup, MeshApp. Because of that shared experience, we’re friends and collaborators to this day. The symbolic nature of traveling all that way just to see me and talk in person immediately indicated the importance he placed on the potential relationship and got us off on the right foot.
While online meeting technology may seem to be a sexy substitute, your first inclination likely doesn’t properly account for all of its effects. When you’re done with an online meeting, everyone disconnects and goes about their ways. Yet meeting in person can yield deeper insights. Perhaps it’s as simple as observing how an office is decorated, leading to an understanding of what they think is important based on how and where it is displayed. Imagine the possibilities: “Is that a photo behind you of you and your son fishing in Alaska? We should all go to my family’s lake cottage sometime to fish!” Or perhaps you notice that other employees seem very deferential to and formal with your primary contact in all of their interactions with her; now you can report back to the home office that anyone meeting with her needs to be formal as well to make sure she’s not offended.
Clearly, your chances of better global relationships increases with simple in-person observations. Of course, you could gain some of these insights by combing through a person’s social media profiles, but you’d risk being perceived as a stalker; noting these things in the course of a conversation while a shared physical space, however, is organic.
While communication technology was designed to cut out the need for a lot of travel, it cannot replace the effective time you could spend in a city getting to do important things like:
prospecting the floor at a trade show, to put a face and a name in the minds of potential clients
sharing a memorable dinner with your bosses, where you can discuss long-term company plans in a more relaxed setting
team building with other departments, like a shared fika break in Sweden
taking in a game with a high-value client, where you’ll get to be conversing side by side for a few hours
If your travel budget seems constrained, do some creative thinking to keep the focus of your travel request on how the trip will leverage one of those face-to-face settings to achieve a strategic management goal for the company’s bottom line or its culture. Otherwise, admit defeat now, prepare to log off from the meeting, and go your separate ways.
If done properly, business travel can even be used as a kind of team-building game. Take some time in a meeting or some space on an email thread to review which employees showed the most creative thinking with the best travel hacks recently and offer a prize to the one who’s judged the winner.
All of your employees will be able to learn from that kind of mindset about how to get the most bang for the travel buck, while simultaneously modeling the kind of behaviors you are looking for when it comes to being responsible with your budget. If you’re looking to pitch your bosses on why an upcoming business trip is warranted, you can apply some of those travel hacks you’ll pick up from sharing with your peers to show how you’re already looking to come in under budget with your request. Additionally, as business travelers take advantage of every trick to maximize travel benefits for professional travel, those elite perks and knowing the ins-and-outs of the system can pay dividends for their personal travel too.
Better employee satisfaction with travel should in turn lead to more satisfaction with the company who is footing the bill. If you go too cheap on your employees’ travel budgets without good reason, they are more likely to ascribe it to a company that is indifferent to their needs. That mentality can make a big difference when it comes to how they’ll view other things at the company, like pay and benefits that could cost you even more in the long run.
Lastly, business travel presents the great opportunity to personally deliver a memorable gift that can show the value you place on a relationship. Whether those gifts are brought to far-off coworkers at a satellite office, or something the traveler thoughtfully brought back to everyone at the home office, the well executed symbolic gesture can apply a stronger social glue to the office culture.
There’s still a lot of benefit to the face-to-face opportunities that come from business travel. Hopefully managers and employees alike can strike a new balance that focuses a little less on when to schedule that next online meeting and a little more on when to have that next in-person handshake with someone far away.
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