WE’RE ALL VERY BUSY, FRANTICALLY BOOKING THAT BUSINESS TRIP or run ragged worrying about the logistics of getting the chief executive from Baku to Bangkok without a hitch. Then there are the forms, the due diligence and the risk assessments...
But does that mean it’s going to be a successful trip? Of course not – until the big boss is safely tucked up in their own bed at home, only then are we able to say whether it’s a job well done. The issue is that there are so many factors the buyer cannot control.
“Travel is emotive and is dependent on purpose,” explains Chris Hellawell, head of account management at Diversity Travel. “There are many philosophical challenges relating to business travel. There is the stress of closing a deal, to helping drive a project that may influence the lives of many. This is in addition to the added strain of being away from family, friends and loved ones. Buyers of business travel must also be mindful of this.”
Have any of us considered the philosophy of business travel? It might be worthwhile. It could allow buyers to do their job better. We are inundated with advice about the nuts and bolts of a trip, but we hear little about the mechanics – the why and how we should go.
The fact is we worship at the three pillars of managed travel – cost control, compliance and duty-of-care – as well as read from the travel policy bible; but we don’t pay that much attention to a traveller’s faith as to what a trip should bear. Does business travel deliver what it promises?
WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF YOUR VISIT?
The motivations for humans to be on-the-go have exhausted the minds of philosophers down the centuries. “Companies need a corporate travel philosophy,” explains Nicos Hadjicostis, author of Destination Earth – A New Philosophy of Travel. Certainly, we should think before booking that trip – about the purpose of travel and developing a system of principles for guidance in corporate travel affairs.
A major theme that runs through the work of writer Alain De Botton is how philosophy can be relevant to contemporary, everyday life. In his book, The Art of Travel, he boldly asserts that if we don’t enjoy leisure travel particularly, it’s our own fault. We fail to ask ourselves what we actually want from a journey or a destination and are therefore easy prey for the glossy brochures and instructive guidebooks.
Well, business travel should never let us down on this front – because each trip is supposed be a very clear quest with a defined goal. Unlike a holiday, the destination is never the outcome. The ultimate prize is signing that multi-million pound contract in Beijing or cementing that business relationship in Birmingham.
“In the last 18 months we’ve had to justify a lot more as to why we are travelling,” says my contact, who prefers to be remain anonymous, at the Ministry of Justice in London. “We cannot just book spontaneously. With more cost-cutting, each trip has to have a defined goal and outcome.”
The consensus is that executives are happier with a trip – all things being equal – if there is a very clear aim, which is then achieved while away. Just asking for face-to-face time with a UK branch office or a customer in Asia isn’t enough.
And the less defined a trip is, the fewer goals that are achieved, then the less satisfying it can be. This can lead to a greater propensity for the traveller to be irked by other factors – the late flight, the lack of ground transport on arrival or the poor room service.
“The business traveller is one of the company’s most important assets and, as such, their wellbeing and mindset should be of considerable importance,” says Paul Wait, CEO of the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC). “It is perhaps hard to have a corporate travel philosophy, but certainly encouraging openness and discussing concerns about a trip are crucial.”
It doesn’t help that many procurement and finance departments are now responsible for travel buying and policy forming these days. “To be honest there needs to be a fundamental shift away from these functions to commercial and HR,” says Wait.
“We need to put the responsibility for business travel into the hands of those people accountable for delivering the company revenues, and have HR monitor and assist in the wellbeing of those people,” he adds. “This fundamental shift in decision-making moves the focus from cost, and inevitably cost-cutting, to investment and a return on human capital and output.”
A business trip is likely to be more satisfying and fruitful if it is, well, less of a business trip – less one-dimensional. If it is one that broadens peoples’ horizons, offers a chance for employees to learn something new, experience a new culture and develop their intelligence, then it can be especially satisfying.
For many philosophers, travel is perceived as an extension of the journey of life. As George Santayana once penned: “What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world?” De Botton had this to say: “The outer journey should assist us with the inner one.”
SEARCHING FOR THE SWEET SPOT
“Many contemporary businesses now acknowledge that business travel enables growth,” explains Jason Geall, general manager for American Express Global Business Travel. “There’s times when the human element is key and must play its part. The main philosophical issue is decid¬ing how to balance cost control and savings versus the traveller experience. There is a sweet spot, though it is different for every company.”
Travel philosopher Hadjicostis believes companies need to do more when it comes to the human element, and that businesses need to adopt a corporate travel philoso¬phy that nurtures more cross-cultural understanding and awareness. “Although most business travel entails short-term visits, business is still an exchange with people, often from another country,” he states.
“To successfully sell your goods or set up a factory overseas, it is important to under¬stand the local mentality and to connect on a deeper level. Creating a corporate travel philosophy that encourages employees to explore the culture by visiting local families, eating local food or attending local events, can only help in creating successful business practices.”
He even goes further and suggests that each company ought to grant a few extra days to the business traveller to immerse themselves more in a healthy way in the culture they are visiting. “This will have positive effects in the long run on both the business person, as well as the business itself,” he explains.
Certainly, in a post-Brexit era when we need to understand cultures and businesses way beyond Europe, this might not be a bad idea.
THAT INDEFINABLE EXTRA
The one thing that has been left out of this debate is what a business trip actu¬ally brings to those who are being visited. This isn’t quantified or accounted for in the travel budget or expense sheet – yet it can be worth its weight in gold.
“The regional staff of the Ministry of Justice certainly welcome face-to face visits conducted by someone from head office – it makes them feel appreciated,” says my anonymous source. “It is hard to quantify that when it comes to travel spend.”
One thing for certain is that we ignore the philosophy of business travel at our peril. In the future, we would ideally be more conscious buyers and travellers – aware that travel has a psychological element. And we should be potentially purchasing trips that offer this.
“Travel, at heart, is just a quick way to keeping our minds mobile and awake,” wrote Pico Iyer, another writer known, like De Botton, for his philosophical take on travel. “The virtue of finding a gilded pavilion in Kyoto is that it allows you to take back a more lasting, private Golden Temple to your office in Rockefeller Centre.”
Learning from the philosophers
• For many philosophers, travel is viewed as an extension of the journey of life.
• Policy should be aware that travel is more than merely getting from A to B.
• Business travel should provide a means of self-exploration, and a source of memories and experience.
• Philosophers in the Age of Enlightenment thought that travel strengthened society through commerce and interaction. This is still true today.
• The journey, and more importantly the goal, can be more important than the destination for business travel.
ONE-DIMENSIONAL TRAVEL (POINT OR LINE TRAVEL) This is the most common and involves a point-to-point visit with no substantive contact with culture or locals. It is like travelling in a bubble. Most short-haul business trips are in this category. You return home the same person you left.
TWO-DIMENSIONAL TRAVEL (SURFACE TRAVEL)
This is where you touch the surface of a place and its people, involving a light acquaintance with the culture. A conference with a large local element could be in this category with locally-themed dinners with colleagues from the region.
THREE-DIMENSIONAL TRAVEL (SOLID TRAVEL)
This level aims at truly exploring the many dimensions of a place, its people and getting a sense of a destination. A stint overseas, such as three weeks or so in a local or client office would count. It involves interacting with locals at a much deeper level.
FOUR-DIMENSIONAL TRAVEL (TOTAL TRAVEL) This is travel par excellence – say, a secondment for six months or so overseas. It can be uncompromising in its demands and involves as many hardships as good times. Above all, it involves struggling with the culture in order to better understand it.
Inspired by Destination Earth – A New Philosophy of Travel.