The Survivor's Guide to Business Travel, Part I: When things go wrong

10 years ago

This is the first in a series I've suddenly felt like writing, since most of my life has been spent lately on airplanes.

I don't love driving in places I don't know well: parking lots, shopping malls, Los Angeles. I take cabs, or order a car service, or convince my husband to drive. But my colleague, Kristin, and I had a slew of business meetings recently in L.A., some we had together and some not. It seemed to make the most sense to drive.

Though I had Mapquested every leg of my trip there were inevitable cancellations and time changes the night before, rendering my printed work useless. I sprang for GPS, thank God, and shrugged and said "Yeah whatever," when they asked me if I was OK with a sporty compact. This was my first mistake.

Poor Kristin, who is easily six foot three in heels, couldn't even fit in the passenger's side of our two-seater.

"I'm sure I can make this work, somehow," she said, bringing her knees uncomfortably close to her head. The last time she had to be in that position was probably when she gave birth to her son. She couldn't so much as fit her wallet in the front seat with us, so she stuffed her belongings in the back

"You are on it!" she said to me, I suspect, because directions and logistics are not my forte. This was positive re-enforcement. Though I struggled to see over the wheel, we managed to make it onto the highway, with the GPS indicating we would make our meeting with plenty of time to spare.

We chatted about random things as I kept my eye on the GPS; I wondered for a moment how I would have managed without it. We'd been warned that the traffic was slow in L.A., though I found it odd that even as traffic sped up we continued at a 20 MPH clip.

Suddenly the engine light began to blink.

"Uhhhh, Kristin. I think something's wrong here."

The car lost all acceleration; we had to coast off the highway, onto a random street.

"This isn't happening," Kristin said, trying to hold it together.

"Re-calibrating route. Re-calibrating route." The GPS responded.

Though we managed to swap out the bad car an hour later, Kristin had to call and tell her contact that we would likely be late. We did salvage the meeting, but I input the wrong address into the GPS and we had to scramble to get there--scramble being a highly subjective word, since we were unable to drive faster than 18 MPH. I drove with the blinkers on; Kristin apologized profusely to anyone who passed us wishing we were dead.

The remainder of the day was equally strewn with problems: One of our appointments had been rescheduled the night before, so Kristin and I had to split up. I dropped her off near her building, where there seemed to be an opening to park--next to a dumpster. Though I had over an hour before my next meeting, which was five miles away, I was stuck in traffic and driving about a block a minute. A colleague had called for some help on a proposal that was due in a few hours. I tried to provide usable feedback while inching ahead to my meeting. The GPS Lady recalibrated my arrival time every minute; I was dangerously close to being late for my next meeting too. With all this down time, I dug into my purse for a Balance Bar, ripped off the wrapper with my teeth and scarfed the thing down. Nothing sucks more than having your stomach growl during a presentation.

The assistant of the executive I was meeting gave me very specific instructions, including making a right once I saw a billboard. I saw three. I guess I should have asked him to be more specific: a billboard of what?

The first one was a no-go; I probably should have noticed sooner that I had entered an amusement park. The second one was correct; I checked in with security. In addition to ensuring everyone's safety, these people serve another useful purpose--you can always blame them for being a few minutes late: "Wow, that's some security you have down there. Took us 15 minutes just to get my name tag!"

An aside: Be very careful with these name tags. Though you might want to just throw them away or toss them into your purse, sometimes you actually have to show this thing to a receptionist when you get to the receptionist's office. I learned this the hard way once, when I'd used my name tag as a receptacle for my chewed gum. Also be very careful with those sticky name tags. If you are wearing cashmere or suede, your guest will understand if you cannot wear it on your person. Be creative! Stick it on your purse (not leather!) or your file folder. These make for great momentos, though not if you flaunt it at a competitive company. Apparently that's tacky.

After this next meeting I got lost in the parking lot, realizing I had been searching the wrong end of an eight-story building and having to inspect every platinum gray car. In some ways I was grateful; I wasn't going to be making it to the gym that day, so the climbing in heels provided me with a decent sweat. I've gotten lost in parking lots many times before and had tried to look for visual cues before I entered the structure, but there weren't any. I parked my car with the butt jutting out, thinking this would provide me with enough differentiation to spot my car later, though I didn't note the make of the car, the replacement of the dysfunctional one I had been driving. It didn't seem very important when I was scrambling to make it to the last meeting. This was another mistake.

I prayed to God while clicking my powerlock keychain, hoping any of the tailights of the thousand or so cars I walked past would flicker. I had only eaten a Balance Bar that day and felt borderline delirious. Finally, I heard it, like God's voice, "beep beep." I've never been so excited to see a Pontiac before.

I couldn't figure out how to input the "Los Angeles Airport" into the GPS (no specific address), so I approximated my way back to the airport, conducting three phone meetings with colleagues in the process.

"When can you take a look at what I just sent you?" one asked.

"Depends," I said, "on When I get to the airport ... sometime." I thought about whether I was actually unable to edit a document from my Blackberry, while driving. I felt that making him wait until I was able to open the doc on my laptop was a little precious, but whatever.

"Did you input the right address this time?"

That was unneccessary.

Once I got to the airport my flight was delayed, and the check-in desk was re-assigned three times. I noticed another gentleman who was booked on my flight and seemed to be able to intuit where to go next. I blindly followed him from station to station and managed to get on the standby list of an earlier flight.

Did I mention the meetings went really well?

Aside from my car rental breaking down, this was not an entirely atypical day of business meetings. Ask anyone who has to be on the road a lot and they are bound to have stories. We wear them like odd badges of honor. Kristin was able to one-up our little car-rental fiasco. She was actually hit by a car on her way to a meeting. Needless to say, she was late for that one, too.

My mother thinks I'm crazy to travel so much. Why would anyone knowingly place themselves in the pit of the unpredictable? But this comes from a woman who hates to leave her house lest she need to go potty. True, it ain't for everyone, particularly people who need to know what to expect in a day. For me, the face-to-face connection with clients or partners is priceless, worth stripping down at airport security numerous times a day.

I find that having to coordinate my work around my travel makes me more organized; I make the most of each minute. Sure, the travel keeps me from a lot of my work, too. I've stopped apologizing for missed emails; I do a daily triage of my email to determine what has to be answered in between flights and meetings. Some just can't get answered until I get back.

The process of successfully managing business travel is like GPS: You start out in a very straightforward manner, but when inevitable changes take you off-course, you must re-calibrate, and do it quickly. You must be willing to offroad and then wipe off the dirt before you make it to the client's lobby.

Needless to say, you should always bring handi-wipes.

Jory Des Jardins also blogs at Pause.

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