As an author and former CEO of a 2.5 billion international solar energy company with plants in over 30 countries, I have lived overseas for long periods of time and put more than 4 million miles on United while traveling for business and pleasure.
During that time I experienced plenty of travel blunders, both self-imposed and those courtesy of Mother Nature, and learned plenty of tricks and tips. Here are six of them:
- Don't travel light. Yes, I know, this is completely counter to what all the travel books tell you, but those books are written mostly for tourists seeing the sights, or kids backpacking through Transylvania. If you're on a business trip, it's not for pleasure. So bring along whatever you know you'll need, and a fair helping of what you might need. Your job is to get the sale or the deal, or establish the relationship or find a partner or any one of the many things that people travel abroad for. None of these things require having a light suitcase. You don't want to stop and have to find a drugstore for tissue packs or tampax, or a department store for fresh socks. And don't worry, you'll always be able to find people to help you if you've got too much to carry. In our business we used to say, "If you can carry your luggage, you haven't packed enough."
- Don't come home with a bag of dirty laundry. Boy, is it ever expensive to send out your shirts and shorts to get laundered during the day. This is true even at hotels in countries that are otherwise not at all expensive. Do it anyway. Business is unpredictable, and what if you, Mr. Economy, are wearing your last shirt, and have a critical final meeting the next day, to which you plan on wearing said shirt, but with your other tie. And that evening red wine gets spilled all over you. Nope, can't wash it in the sink and have it dry overnight. Hard to be credible wearing the Knicks sweatshirt that you sleep in to the meeting. Losing the deal because you haven't spent ten bucks to have a backup clean shirt and underwear is the definition of "false economy."
- Don't load up on the local currency. Credit cards have been invented for some time now, and anywhere that you want to do business, they will be accepted. In fact, if you go to a place where the hotels and the restaurants don't accept credit cards, it's probably not a good place to do business. This is an easy test.
- Don't forget to tip reasonably. But wait, I don't have any currency. Ah, part of not traveling light means carrying a lot of ones and fives, good old American greenbacks. Have you ever stood in a dark hotel hallway after getting into town on a late flight, fumbling for the right number of zlotskys to tip the bellman? Darn, what was the exchange rate -- 10,000 zlotskys per dollar or 100,000? And what's the denomination of this damn bill they gave me, am I about to give this guy ten cents or a hundred dollars? Solution -- you know what to give him in dollars, so give him what you'd give anyone for performing the same service. I have done this all over the world, and you know what -- NO ONE has ever demanded zlotskys instead of dollars. No one.
- Don't fly in comfortable clothes. What? Today the entire first class section of the plane seems to be filled with executives wearing jeans and running shoes and the suit coat to their suits. It's an odd outfit. It's meant to let one travel light by not having to pack the suit coat or the running shoes. But it's stupid. You've checked your luggage -- see point one above -- and there is a measurable chance it will be lost or delayed at some point. So, then you go to your first meeting in jeans and running shoes? No, you wear grey slacks, loafers, a button down shirt, a blue blazer, and carry a tie in your hand luggage -- along with a day's worth of any necessary medicines. And the equivalent if you're a woman. You can show up in that outfit at any business function short of a funeral for the Queen, and she seems unlikely to die any time soon. Yes, it would have been nice to shower and shave, but you're still respectable.
- Don't eat or drink things that could make you sick. You don't have to. You're not auditioning for replacing Anthony Bourdain, you're trying to establish business relationships or carry out business. You probably can't demand a hamburger but you can very politely push what they serve you around your plate and say something about how lovely the sheep's eyeballs look set so naturally in the nest of fried worms. And you can probably find something to eat, like rice or potatoes. If you get sick, your business effectiveness vanishes and besides then you're sick in a country where you'd probably prefer not to go to the hospital. And this includes at times not drinking the water, or the ice, unless you take the former from a plastic sealed bottle. And for gods' sake don't overdue the alcohol, no matter how drunk your hosts get, or how much they encourage you to drink. You wouldn't do this at home, and it's an even worse idea overseas.
In general, you need to tread that fine line between cultural respect and sensitivity vs. naïve, eager to please stupidity. Your hosts want to pursue business with a professional, not recruit a best friend. Make it easy for them.