Life on the Road…
by: Mack Asrat
When I received a job offer, in the fall of 1996, to join one of the Big Five (Big Six back then) public accounting firms, I was overjoyed. I was in the twilight of my graduate school education and eager to rejoin the "gainfully employed." I was oozing with adrenaline and completely unfazed by the daunting challenges of practicing public accounting. Becoming an active participant in this dynamic industry, in the company of some of its key architects, had the potential to be extremely stimulating.
This particular accounting firm had actively recruited me and had participated in several of its leadership workshops the previous summer. I had come to appreciate the firm, not just for its first-class reputation and its remarkable list of clientele, but also for the values it manifested and the stimulating work-culture it cultivated. The firm also made a conscious effort to nurture the professional development of its people. It appeared to cut no corners in investing in top-of-the-line training for its workforce.
The firm, however, had admittedly found it difficult to reduce turnover and to retain its talented people – clearly unable to counteract the negative effects of the travelling. Increased compensation packages seemed to have little impact on retention. As such, the firm continued to use training as its best means of mitigating the negative effects caused by the strain of traveling.
I quickly learned that business travel is not as glamorous as it appears to the naive graduate.
What I was ill-prepared for were the arduous rigors of "life on the road." I had always been fascinated by traveling and all the associated positive attributes. I could not imagine how there could be any downside to it. The opportunity to eat at fine restaurants, stay at fancy hotels and drive hot-off-the-assembly-line rental cars - what more could anyone ask for? It was not too long before I got slapped with reality and was able to answer that question in the blink of an eye. I learned that there is a price one pays when one chooses an occupation in which travel is necessary. But I also learned that there are means by which one can mitigate the less-than-desirable effects of traveling and still appreciate all the positive elements associated with it
My first on-the-job travel experience occurred three weeks into my career in public accounting. I had arranged to meet my colleagues at the airport on a Sunday evening in order to catch an 8:00pm flight to Midland, Texas—a city of approximately 30,000 in the western Texas desert, known more for its dung-flinging festival than its fine restaurants. As you can imagine, this was not one of my dream travel destinations. The turbo-prop flight was relatively uneventful although I found the seats uncomfortably tight. I also experienced some stiffness from holding onto my seat, unnerved by the periodic rattle of the propellers (the trip being more suitable for wearing an army jumpsuit than an Armani suit). I could also have done without the 1.5oz bag of peanuts – which seemed to only exacerbate my appetite. But I was determined to stay positive, despite the trickling sweat down my neck. I wanted to not only make a good impression on our client, I wanted to enjoy myself, meet a variety of people and work out of a different office.
Once we landed, it took an additional hour for us to claim our luggage, rent a car and proceed to our place of stay. The rental car was not the new Porshe I had been eyeing, but the standard Ford Taurus. By the time we got to our hotel and checked in, it was well past midnight, and needless to say, I was ready to hit the sack. And that was about all I could do, since there were no workout facilities at the hotel. Furthermore, we were told that we would not have phone line connections in our rooms and that we would have to use the pay phones in the lobby. Of course this also meant that we would have no Internet connection from our hotel. By this time, I was finding it difficult to stay positive. It seemed like someone was playing a practical joke on us.
When my colleagues and I met in the morning for breakfast, it was obvious that all of us had varying degrees of jet lag. In addition, each of us brought up additional points of dissatisfaction with our lodging conditions, ranging from malfunctioning air-conditioning units to a general lack of cleanliness in the rooms. After our complaint-oriented conversation, we decided that we were going to immediately check out of the hotel. In addition, as soon as we got to our client's location, we planned to request that our travel coordinator arrange other accommodations for us for the remaining part of our stay. Each of us had practically vowed that under no circumstances were we going to spend another night at the "roach motel."
Our first day at our client's location did not fare much better. Apparently our contact had misunderstood the timing of our arrival and was not expecting us until the following week. His sincere apologies did little to alleviate the space problem we experienced in the tiny conference room that four of us were stuck in for the rest of the week. Furthermore, even though we billed the client for the whole time we were there, our first two days were completely unproductive –unless you consider playing games on your Palm V productive. Actually it was our only relief as we waited on the client to provide us necessary information
The comedy of errors continued as we had lunch at a recommended restaurant not too far from the client's location. Apparently, there are zero "no-smoking" sections of restaurants in Midland, Texas. It seemed as if all the restaurant patrons lit their respective Marlboros and choreographically fanned the smoke in our direction (I am sure that they all had a big laugh as we left the restaurant coughing and trying to pat the smoke out of our suits). This was definitely not how I had visualized my first on-the-job traveling experience. Already antsy from not having exercised that morning, I was ready to call 911 and declare that I was going to have an anxiety attack. My only thoughts were "when the heck was I going to be going back to the comforts of my own bed and the familiar surroundings of my own city?" Dorothy's mantra "there's no place like home" was becoming my own.
Granted, my first case of travelling was a little extreme and I would not wish this trip on anybody. But my point is not to berate a profession that involves traveling. Rather, I want to point out that there really are many benefits to traveling on the job. Such occupations often times come with lucrative compensation packages. One can also get the opportunity to travel to interesting locales and experience different cultures, whether they're exotic or just down-home American. One can also arrange extended travel plans, on either side of the business portion of the trip. This time can be used to see family and/or friends. Furthermore, one may accumulate frequent flier mileage points that can be used for personal travel. "
In order to make a sound decision, one should consider how key elements might affect them personally. Certain things such as uncomfortable lodging conditions, can usually be easily avoided with advanced planning. Other things however, such as jet lag, disruption of routine, and cash flow issues related to having to float business expenses on personal credit cards may not be. Therefore, the important decision making factors are the lifestyle you want to live, and whether or not you can deal with the intangible things that no amount of preparation can foresee.
Also, one should strongly consider where they are in their personal and professional development. The traveling lifestyle is generally more suited to those who are younger, single and in the early stages of their career. Travelling professionals tend to be adventurous and excited about the variety of experiences. They also tend to be more willing to handling the physical and mental wear and tear. Plus, they are less likely to have a loved one or family at home who are being affected by the inconsistency brought on by a traveling schedule.
So let me finish by sharing with you a few tips that might help if, in fact, you have chosen work that entails some "life on the road."
- Make a list of standard items that you normally need on your trips (This way you do not have to worry about thinking of what you forgot or did not forget).
- Set aside plenty of quality time for spending with your family and friends when you're home.
- Have two sets of things (i.e., two sets of toiletries) and have miniature items if you can, already packed.
- Pack light and use the following rule of thumb when packing: "When in doubt, leave it. (More often than not, you will end up not needing it)
- Keep track of your expenses daily with diligence (This will save you a lot of time and frustration later).
- Research a city on the Internet before you go. If you enjoy eating at good restaurants, use a city guide that will provide a consensus opinion, rather than asking the hotel front desk. Often, hotels get paid to suggest certain restaurants, whether they are good or bad.
- Turn a trip into a mini-vacation in which you can include a loved one. Often, if you turn a trip into a weekend stayover, (saving the company a lot of money on the flight), the company will often pay for a few extra days of lodging, during which a loved one can come meet you.
- Don't drink alcohol on the flight or during the trip- it tires you out further. Drink lots of water during the flight, to prevent dehydration. Take vitamins prior to and during trip to prevent catching any airborne sicknesses that often fester on airline flights.
- Always keep in mind friends/family members who can check your mail, water your plants and take care of general things during your absence.
- Be flexible in your exercise habits; (Pushups, sit-ups and jumping jacks are just as good as the nautilus machines).
Air Travel Considerations:
- Book flights through major hubs, which provide better opportunities for connecting flights.
- Try to not check in your luggage. (You can save a considerable amount of time. Furthermore, you don't have to risk the nightmare of "the lost luggage").
- Have a book to read for the trip (on the plane as well as while waiting in the airport when flights are delayed) as long as you do not suffer from motion sickness.
- If there are any problems, complain to the airline in writing. Often they will respond with free flight coupons.
- Request exit rows, where there's twice as much leg room
Car rental tips:
- Reserve a rental car in advance. No waiting in lines and you can ensure that the associated points will be added to your frequent flyer account.
- Gas up on your own when returning rental cars (you will save a lot of money).
- Check on your accommodations in advance to see if they have facilities that you consider to be important to you (i.e., workout rooms, laundry facilities, Internet connection in rooms).