The art of international business travel according to a travel-a-holic

05/05/2015

The art of international business travel from a travel-aholic

The art of international business travel from a travel-aholic

Travel can be seen as a real challenge, a necessary but unfortunate evil plagued by delays, jetlag, poor service, and personal risk. Not to mention cramped spaces that are reminiscent of the transport of cattle or the packing of tuna into a flying tin can, more than they are of the luxury and adventure of days gone by.

Who in their right mind, one might justifiably ask, would choose a professional path that demands passing through X-Ray machines and invasive scanners, interactions with perpetually grumpy immigration officials and the voluntary consumption of airplane food, or worse yet, train station sandwiches?

The adjectives that come to mind (in several languages, and on a graduating scale of severity) are not fit to print, and yet, I am about to admit something even crazier – please keep the chaps in the white coats away…

My name is Alexander, and I am a travel-a-holic

It’s true. I actually enjoy the atmosphere, dynamism and sense of mission that one feels in a bustling airport, and I am convinced that prolonged absence from the perfume of jet fuel is a cause for concern.

The journey, for me, is a major part of the experience of international business, and of any form of travel: it is about much more than efficient and predictable displacement from “Point A” to “Point B”, and it provides countless opportunities for the exercise of civility, personal discipline and enrichment.

Even when things, as they inevitably will, go so ridiculously wrong that you can only laugh.

Travel, for me, is part art and part science, and in truth, I sometimes ignore the science and focus disproportionately on the art.

Make use of the resources available

As a Canadian businessperson exploring international markets, there are a couple of elements of the “science” that should be second nature: reach out to the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service to see if they can help.

Straight talk: spare me the ideological nonsense about ‘public sector’ employees that know nothing about the ‘real world’. Our best diplomats are a powerful asset in Canada’s international success – just as they can be critical to the success of a small start-up with a promising product or service that has progressed far enough to have a credible opportunity in international markets.

Canadian diplomats, both on the political and the commercial side of our Posts, are – despite years of shameful neglect – among the best in the world.

Relatedly, when you are considering travel in high-risk areas (or even unfamiliar ones), look to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) for online market risk assessments. Where necessary, register with the Department so that they know you are planning to be in a volatile market, and can help maximize your chances of safe travel and safe return.

Look to industry associations, chambers of commerce (internationally, these bodies are much more central to the conduct of business) and World Trade Centres to gather market intelligence and for help with in-market logistics and introductions.

The time and financial savings can be very high, and the impact on the way you are perceived in your new market can be invaluably positive.

Check with reliable sources

Have you been asked to help a new contact in Ghana sort out how to extract tons of high-quality trees from the bottom of a cold lake that has preserved $1 billion or more worth of rare wood?

Check with a credible source in Canada: you may find, as I did, that the fellow in Accra talked a good game and had some interesting references, but as it turns out, he operates out of a repurposed school bus with a cell phone and a rented fax machine, and cannot be located or identified.

[Tweet “The science of travel demands personal responsibility: research and ensure risks are mitigated. “]

These unique entrepreneurial ‘hubs’ are an excellent and creative mechanism for local SMEs, but do not a billion-dollar extraction project make.

Have you had the good fortune to travel to Africa? (Times are difficult and risky in many areas now, but the old assessment – you will either get it, and love it immediately, or perhaps not at all – seems to hold true.)

the art of international business travel
Image courtesy of Jay Galvin

When even the science of travel can’t help you

In my case, the science element was that all the necessary risk assessments had been done, and all the required letters of introduction sent out to senior ministry staff in Botswana, Kenya and Ethiopia, months in advance and with all the requisite stamps, colours and chops from the Deputy Vice Minister of This to her Excellency the Secretary General of That…

Despite the advance planning, multiple signoffs and the ‘approved’ agenda’ it was momentarily (this is a key word!) disheartening to call the Ministry in Nairobi, introduce myself after a long night at Johannesburg airport and a bumpy flight, only to be asked “Who are you again?”

As it turned out, the ministry staff had left the city and were in Mombassa at an off-site meeting.

Should one give way to ‘road rage’, indulge in a rant about bureaucratic inefficiency, or bemoan the significantly shorter time available to actually get the WORK done? NO!!

Can anyone say “Photo Safari”? Happily, the Kenya National Park is not very far, and the art of travel demanded that when the science of meeting-planning failed miserably, one simply went downstairs to the travel agency, booked a 1960’s VW van and a grizzled but extremely pleasant guide, and hit the road for what turned out to be a unique personal highlight.

The science of travel demands a certain level of personal responsibility: do some research and ensure that risks are either acceptable or appropriately mitigated.

On the other hand, just because there is a sign on the wall of a hotel compound that says “If you leave this compound and get killed, the hotel is not responsible”, does not (necessarily) mean that you stay in. Though it certainly suggests keeping well within the compound after nightfall!]

That said, personal travel styles vary significantly. Some prefer to have everything mapped out and organized, others do some planning and some ad-libbing, while others still abhor any real planning and would rather follow the wind. The latter approach is difficult in the context of business travel.

[Tweet “Your experience of travel comes down to the experience you create for yourself”]

The science of travel suggests that you check carefully which currencies are acceptable in a given jurisdiction – and that is a prudent practice! Travel to Turkey and attempt to pay the entry visa in Turkish Lira? Nope!

Travel to Ethiopia and assume that the authorities will be delighted to accept your remaining Kenyan Shillings in payment of the entry visa? Nope! Sadly, the only bank machine available is on the other side of immigration, and you can’t get to the other side without paying the visa fee…but how can you pay the visa fee without getting access to the bank machine?…you get the idea!

The art of travel links closely to personal approach and style: politeness goes a very long way and can help resolve what might seem at first like an insurmountable logistical challenge; fits of anger, impatience or arrogance will inevitably exacerbate any issue you might be facing ‘en route’, and you have a great deal of influence on the way you react to a situation.

Learn to enjoy the moment when things don’t go as planned

Delayed train in London as you are heading to Heathrow for a flight across the pond? Don’t worry, sip a nicely chilled Bollinger at the champagne bar at Paddington Station (what else would one order, but a favourite of James Bond when in the UK?).

Delayed connection to Singapore from Tokyo on a first (quick) stop in Japan? No worries, the sushi at Narita is far better than what can be found in some reputable restaurants in Canada, and you may even have an opportunity to learn to appreciate the delicate flavours of cold sake: Kampai!

It can get even better when the unexpected small pleasure is topped off with a courtesy upgrade for the next leg of the trip.

Mastering the art of travel

A rare morning when you have (OK, have made!) time for breakfast – What will you choose? Scrambled eggs and toast in a loud, clanging lobby restaurant at the Imperial Hotel Osaka, or a traditional Japanese breakfast upstairs, where you are greeted with soft music and warm and friendly staff who walk you silently to your table and bring a fixed-menu breakfast?

The art of travel is often in the details: it can be found in the most unexpected locales and circumstances, but only if your spirit and your eyes are attuned to finding these gems of life experience.

It was a world of difference, and an experience of quiet serenity (and a still unidentified, but delightful breakfast) that remains uniquely part of my stay in Osaka. I had a similar experience watching the sun rise over the Mediterranean in view of the snow-capped mountains of Lebanon and the famed Corniche de Beirut, while enjoying the unparalleled hospitality of the Intercontinental.

Travel is about much more than simply going somewhere. Leaving Canada in 40-below temperatures and landing at Dampasar Airport Bali, stopping dead in one’s tracks and dropping laptop and carry-on to simply enjoy the first breeze of tropical air made the rest of the (“work”) week a fantastic one!

Your experience of travel comes down to the experience you create for yourself, personally and professionally.

Need the science to predominate your business travel? OK, understandable, but for your own sake, let a bit of creative art enter into the personal aspects of your travel, even if the purpose of your trip happens to be commercial!

Do you take the time to enjoy your surroundings on business trips? What are some of your best moments enjoying the “art of travel”?

What else does Alexander do?

Alexand_TradeFinALearn more about the intricacies of Trade Finance from one of the leading subject market experts on the topic. His critically acclaimed book Financing Trade and International Supply Chains will give you deeper insights into nature of trade finance at its core, and of the versatility of this discipline in enabling trade flows involving businesses of all sizes.

 Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Alexander R. Malaket, CITP|FIBP

Author: Alexander R. Malaket, CITP|FIBP

Alexander is a globally recognized specialist in international business, trade and trade finance. He is President and Founder of OPUS Advisory Services International Inc. (Canada)

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