Culture club: How to engage global stakeholders

Can ‘cultural intelligence’ benefit both your business and travel programme?

Crossing borders: it’s what business travel is all about really, and buyers are instrumental in making the process go smoothly. But how prepared are buyers, and their travelling employees, for crossing cultural boundaries?

Cultural intelligence, or cultural IQ, was under the spotlight at the recent ITM Conference, where buyers were encouraged to become more aware of other nations’ customs and etiquette when doing business. At the same time, technology platforms are also playing a key role in raising awareness and highlighting cultural differences.

Getting a response
Speaking at ITM’s annual gathering in Brighton earlier this year, Jo Lloyd, partner at Nina & Pinta, set the scene by asking: “How do I interact with my teams, my stakeholders, my travellers in different parts of the world. If I’m rolling out projects, how can I get someone to respond to me in India the same as I would from Brazil?”

It’s a valid question for many global travel managers who find themselves launching online booking tools and other systems in other countries, as part of a drive for efficiencies and data capture, or simply are involved in an expanding organisation. What should they be aware of when dealing with counterparts, colleagues or suppliers in different countries?

A buyer on the panel advised: “You need to go about this the same way you would a budget, a project strategy.”

To start with, research how the country views the work/life balance. “Some cultures want to have a life, and enjoy their time and finish work at 5pm. Amazing!” they joked.

“But that’s not how we work in the UK, and especially in the industry we work in, so understanding what is acceptable from a work/life balance in the country that you’re working with is also a way to get things done. Knowing that you’re not going to get a response after 4.30pm is completely acceptable,” the attendees heard.

“Sending someone in Germany an email asking them to do something on Friday is unacceptable. You ask someone to do something on a Monday, not on a Friday.”

When I was in China I spent the first year drinking green tea with government officials

Also speaking on the panel was Richard Tams, of Tailwind Advisory, which offers cultural intelligence coaching for executives who are relocating, or for staff managing global teams.

Tams launched his consultancy last year after 27 years at British Airways, and shared some of his experiences gained from various sales and marketing roles across Europe, North America and Asia.

“There are observable behaviours to consider, such as attitudes. For example, attitudes to timekeeping. Also how we dress, the gestures we use, and customs, the way we treat food, the way we eat, and the things we eat, the money we use.

“When BA and Iberia merged, I took my team to Madrid for the first time. We got there at midday, did two hours’ work, then had a two-hour lunch, which brilliantly ended up with brandy and cigars. To us, that was totally alien; to the Spanish it was absolutely what they should have done. This shows the different ways we treat food. In the UK, we tend to take a sandwich to our desk.”

Relationship models
Kinship and nuclear family models also need to be factored in, the panel heard, and delegates were asked to consider whether the country they are dealing with is a capitalist or socialist society.

“For example, in the US – a capitalist country – calling one person out and rewarding them for being the best they can be is completely normal; it’s acceptable. But for somewhere like Sweden, it’s about calling out the team. Calling one person out doesn’t go down well. They don’t like the recognition. It’s a collective society,” Tams said.

Meanwhile, he said the “nuclear family” model was prevalent in the Far East. “They have a methodical view of their relationship. In the nucleus, the family is the centre; it’s the priority. Outside, it’s friends, then outside that your network. Then outside of that, the rest. Out of that, you’re nothing – outside of that, don’t try and do business.

“The kinship model is linked with Western culture, like the US. At the centre of the circle is you and your friends, the family could come in the next circle, but beyond that is a recognition you can contact people you’ve not met before. In the US, you can go up to someone and present your business card, and that is the beginning of a conversation.

“In Korea and Japan, you must first develop a relationship, without an agenda, without trying to get something from them. When I was in China I spent the first year drinking green tea with government officials. Gallons of it, talking about nothing, to build political capital. Then 18 months later I could start calling on these people to get stuff done.”

But can characterising cultures lead to unwelcome stereotyping? For Tams, “cliches are cliches because for the most part there are truths in it. They are a guideline, but not a definitive”.

John Lee, co-founder and chief operating officer of CultureMee – a platform that aims to connect travellers with the destination they are visiting by providing practical, cultural and travel advice – agrees: “We don’t believe in stereotypes. CultureMee is based on data and cultural models. You can have mean trends.”

A more real danger lies in thinking of cultures in the same way as geographical regions, according to Nina & Pinta’s Lloyd: “Most of us operate in geographical clusters, like EMEA, Americas, APAC, but within that there are so many cultures. People tend to talk about Africa like it’s a country; there are 54 countries.”

After recognising the need to be aware, how do buyers access the right information and react accordingly?

For the panel buyer, find someone you can trust to test the waters: “Having to run new projects with new nuances, you need to know who your cultural touchpoint is in your market. I have specific people I go to, to ask if my approach is going to work. Factor it into your planning… things are going to take time. My first fall in India was giving myself six weeks to implement something, then getting to week five and realising that we’d not set the right touchpoints.”

Connecting abroad
Technology also plays its part and platforms, such as CultureMee, are useful for travellers once in destination as cross-cultural communication is equally important on the move. Lee of CultureMee, which is currently being piloted by Gray Dawes Group, says: “I find it fascinating how the whole business travel industry has been set up to get people from A to B, yet totally underestimates the impact we can have once people get to B.

“For example, I have rarely if ever met a business traveller who said it was the comfortable bed, or the business class flights, or the nice rental car, which got them the deal. Most of the time it was the personal aspect which got that deal over the line, which is a combination of connecting with someone’s personality and understanding their culture.”

TripLingo is another useful platform for business travellers. This app allows instant voice and image translation, features a database of phrases in the local language, etiquette and tipping information, and tools that save money on roaming costs and access critical safety information in case of an emergency.

Sending someone in Germany an email asking them to do something on Friday is unacceptable

Travel and Transport Statesman worked with TripLingo for several years, before acquiring it recently. It featured in its own Dash platform, but now there are wider benefits and “tie-ins” for members in its global TMC network Radius Travel.

TripLingo founder Jesse Maddox says: “TripLingo isn’t just language, it’s a Swiss army knife for challenges with international travel. There are two benefits: the safety side and the day-to-day practical side. I know a travel manager who was in France, and ended up in a hospital where no one spoke English. They communicated with doctors using TripLingo to let them know what had happened.”

Michael Kubasik, executive vice-president and chief information officer at Travel and Transport Inc, says TripLingo also takes duty-of-care to a whole new level. “Travellers don’t get excited by safety; it’s unlikely something will happen. But for a travel manager, when you have thousands of trips in a programme, it’s useful,” he notes. “There’s also a better customer experience. Why? We listen to the customers, and there are a lot of travel managers. They’re asking for this type of delivery. It’s convenient.”

For now, the exact benefits of adopting cultural intelligence in a travel programme may be hard to quantify. However, as Nina & Pinta’s Lloyd notes: “It’s not a specific science, but it gives you the best possible guide to where the potential is for you to come unstuck.”

In the current climate of Brexit and greater cultural sensitivities, anything to promote greater tolerance should be welcomed, and cultural IQ might just offer your business a passport to success.

Model behaviour

Do you know your Trompenaars model from your Hofstede Cultural Dimensions? These models are commonly referred to when analysing the difference between cultures.


Trompenaars’ model of cultural differences is a framework for cross-cultural communication applied to general business and management, and was developed by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. It highlights key comparisons to consider, such as achievement versus ascription, and universalism versus particularism. It was based on research from across 43 countries.


The Hofstede Cultural Dimensions theory also looks at countries’ values across different factors, including individualism versus collectivism, and masculinity versus femininity. It was developed by Geert Hofstede and describes the effects of a society’s culture on the values of its members, and how these values relate to behaviour.

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