Office Acculturation 108: Business Travel Rituals and Protocol

Business_Travel_PosterPart of the glamorous life of many corporate professionals is the business trip – pulling on your traveling pants and heading to client meetings, conferences, focus groups and other such adventures.  It’s a life that young professionals aspire to and get tired of by the time they are in their late twenties.  Many people envision being pampered by attentive, attractive stewardesses, turn-down service with mints on their pillows, lavish meals, town-cars and upscale cigar bars.  The reality:  sardine-can airline seating, bitter wage-reduced airline workers, hotel carpets that you don’t want to walk on in bare feet, Chain-food dining, taxi-cabs and (if you are lucky) seedy strip clubs.

Life on the road is hard if you are not traveling with C-level (CEO, CFO, CMO, etc.) and the rites and rituals are ones that inevitably make you stronger and give you motivation to do it right when you get to travel for a well-earned vacation.

Here are some examples of the lifestyles of the mile-high professional:

Packing protocol:  for most of us, a typical business trip involves anywhere from one to four nights away from home.  The objective of packing is to make sure you don’t have to check a bag and end up having to wait at the airport / be the jerk who holds up everyone else on the team so your high-maintenance-highness can get their luggage packed with all your wardrobe changes.  Therefore, you try and cram as many useful items as you can into a carry-on bag that you will then heave into an overhead compartment.  It is important to carefully select the one pair of shoes you can tolerate wearing, find ways to make sure your shirts don’t wrinkle (lest you have to actually iron when you arrive – which none of us want to do) and that you bring enough pairs of socks and underwear.  You will likely underestimate on this account and end up washing your argyles or bikini-brief’s in the sink.  I heard on Oprah once that many people use the in-room coffee pots for this (given the easy access to hot water).  Make a mental note:  never make coffee with your in-room coffee pot, learn more here to get a mug.

Airport security:  A part of the glamour of being a necessary person who has to travel to service their clients’ and colleagues’ needs is the honor of taking off your shoes, jacket and belt, putting your toiletries in a zip-lock bag in a bin (so everyone can see your jock-itch cream) throwing out your bottled water in the garbage (it’s a threat to national security) and pulling out all of your electronics to be scanned.  If you are lucky you also get selected for a random search so they can dig through the entirety of your personal belongings and potentially pat you down.  Pimpin’ aint easy – but don’t forget how important you are.  🙂

The hunt for the charge:  if you don’t have membership in an airline club or access to a lounge – the race to the power outlet is a challenge that requires agility and skill.  You must know where to hunt for place to charge your phone or plug in your laptop lest you go too long without being productive.  While many airports have added seating areas with lots of space to plug in your necessary tech, airports are still lined with people in slacks flat out on the floor against the wall.

Airline club membership:  A rite of passage for business travelers that gives us the illusion of being a VIP.  For an annual few of a few hundred dollars (or if your company is generous enough to let you carry a Platinum American Express) you have access to a private lounge where you can sit in comfy-ish chairs, drink free booze, snack on a collection of single-serve packaged goods and plug in / charge your laptops and cell phones.  This gives you absolutely no excuse not to take conference calls, check email and get work done while you are in transit.

Airline Status:  If you travel frequently, it is always smart to stick with one airline so you can earn points for the miles you travel and, ultimately, status.  I think the same thing goes with voucher loyalty. At the upper echelons of airline VIPness you get free upgrades to business class / first class. There are also cheap business class tickets available. This is your reward for not getting to have a personal life because you are always on the road.  It means, if you hold your breath and are one of the lucky ones, you get to board the airplane first and sit down in a slightly larger and cozier seat with a cocktail before anyone else gets on the airplane.  Then if you are super-lucky, the first class cabin is located in the path of traffic to coach, so when everybody else boards they get to walk past you and stare at you with resentment.  From there your food choices get upgraded to a microwave meal placed on china that still tastes bad but at least beats a thimble full of peanuts.   The flight attendants will smile at you and call you by your name and you can plug in your laptop so your battery doesn’t die and once again have no excuse to not get work done.

In-Flight internet:  for a small fee that your company will be happy to pay you can now access the internet on airplanes so you are able to send and receive emails.  Now you don’t have the pressure of deciding what movie to watch or book to read since you will be working the entire flight.

Hotel loyalty programs:  another “perk” of choosing to consistently stay at one of many cookie-cutter business hotel choices.  With the economy still not doing so great, your client or company budgets for travel are likely a bit meager.  This means you will be staying in one of those hotels you see advertised on commercials that have dials on the beds and free continental breakfasts.  BUT – if you are a member of their loyalty programs and stay at the same brand often enough you will get upgraded to rooms that have a higher class of branded toiletries and get free bottled water.

Business dinners:  one of the snazzier perks of business travel and a charming ritual whereby you dine at chain restaurants with people you work for:  exchanging pleasantries, talking about your favorite ski destinations, sports scores and nutritional regimens.  The best part is you get to drink.  The worst part is you get to see your clients and coworkers get drunk.  The smart business traveler saves the uber-boozing for when they get back to their hotel room so they can forget the personal stories and office-political melee that they witnessed at dinner, take a nice bath or make “full use” and give a shower head review of it’s abilities – and hit the sack.

Demonstrations of machismo:  for guys who travel (and the lucky females who “can hang”) there is the seedy business travel ritual that usually follows a dinner with too much drinking.  It typically involves a trip to the local strip club to check out the “local talent”.  In this situation men give themselves free rein to behave like animals in heat and spend hundreds of dollars they will expense later on stripper tips and lap dances.  At some point in the evening the newbies will be reminded that “what happens on the road stays on the road” as their (typically married) colleagues ogle women half their age and reminisce about a time (that likely never happened) when they were a ladies man.

Receipts:  another business travel survival-must is saving your receipts for the inevitable expense report.  Most people shove these bits and strips of white paper in pants pockets, purses, laptop bags and various other crevices and then get to go on a scavenger hunt when they get home to locate them so they can be taped down to blank sheets of white paper and handed into the corporate accounts department with their expense reports.  It is important to keep these receipts so the company can bill clients for the expensive dinners they pretended they weren’t paying for and so you can get reimbursed for stuff where they don’t take American Express.

Expense reports:  noted above, this ritual is an administrative slice-of-hell that every business travel must go through.  Aside from the taping down of receipts, you get to code every maid and valet tip and Starbucks latte to a specific project.  You also get to make up an amount that you spent – in theory – on maid and valet tips and buying your clients drinks at the cash bar.

These are a few of the travel traditions that road warriors endure every day.  But don’t let the mundanity discourage you.  Sooner or later the travel industry will catch up and create experiences that don’t suck.  Human traffic from one place to the next is what brings us together, builds relationships, spreads ideas and helps us all fight the good fights.  So, go forth with your travel shampoo get your head in the game.  It’s a big world out there and somebody has to keep those hotel beds warm.

*for further reading, feel free to poke around for my other “Office Acculturation” lessons in the archives.  A good participant-observer of corporate culture should always go in with an ethnographic-knowledge edge.

4 thoughts on “Office Acculturation 108: Business Travel Rituals and Protocol

    1. context is everything, I suppose! 😉
      I remember being at the airport in Pune, India. Just being able to enter the airport would have been a bonus. The dot-matrix printer that printed boarding passes was down and nobody could enter without their boarding pass. We waited 90 minutes in 110 degree heat for the IT guy….

  1. Is this anthropology or gross speculation and cliche? I am a man who has been doing frequent business travel for two decades, and I rarely see men having any alcoholic drink, much less drinking too much. They’re too tired for that nonsense, they’re given extra work to do in their hotel rooms after the official working day is done, and the already packed schedule is made even more unrealistic by flight delays and cancellations. I’ve never known any of the men I work with to go out to strip clubs, either, but you make it sound like it’s something that’s rampant. Have you actually done fieldwork on this, or are you just guessing?

    1. I will only say that this blog is based on ethnographic experience and leave it at that. Your experience is also a familiar one but I suppose I have had a bit more diversity in my 14 years as a consumer anthropologist and business traveler. 😉

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