Mike Foster felt helpless. Just about everyone has had the nightmare of standing naked in front of a classroom, but Foster was in a worse situation. He was somewhere in Maryland, presenting a seminar on Internet strategy to an audience of county government officials who expected to be dazzled by his expertise. "I was giving an IT technical seminar, standing there with no microphone, no equipment," he says. Instead, he had only four paper printouts.
It all started when his luggage disappeared. The airline promised Foster his luggage would be found by the next morning, but when he woke up it was still AWOL. His usual show involved a presentation run from his laptop through a video projection unit. But he had only ten minutes' worth of juice in his battery, and though he had the projection unit with him, he realized that it used nonstandard cables. "It was about as useful as a paperweight," he says. Foster attempted to copy his 300-slide presentation at a local Kinko's. "It printed four sheets of paper before the battery died."
Foster, founder of Foster Success Strategies, frequently conducts tutorials on technology and Internet strategies. Since he travels up to five days a week, he doesn't even have a home base -- just a fax number in Seattle, a toll number in Cleveland, and a post office box in Dallas. Foster lives out of his suitcase and a long succession of hotels. His nomadic lifestyle forces Foster to carry most of his valuable business tools with him at all times. Given the vagaries of air travel today, he was a crisis waiting to occur.
Business travel has always been tiring, frustrating, and infuriating. It seems to be getting worse. According to the National Business Travel Association, flight-related delays have increased an average of 12 minutes since 1977, and increased six minutes between 1998 and 1999. Every time there's a blast of rough weather, the evening news trots out images of stranded passengers camping out in airport terminals, waiting for their flights to be rescheduled, complaining that their family reunions or week of hedonism in Jamaica will have to be cut short.
Frequent business travelers, however, suffer their own exquisite tortures
The real cost of business travel
Hitting the road, especially when it means crossing the globe, is increasingly expensive. U.S. business airfares jumped by 12 percent in 2000, according to American Express. When mishaps occur, the expenses only start to mount up. Costs for hotel rooms or rental cars can skyrocket when extra days are added, says Robert Pacheco, director of American Express Consulting Services, especially for small businesses that don't negotiate deals in advance.
But the true cost can't fully be put into line items, since much of it comes in the form of lost productivity. American Express' statistics say that over the course of his lifetime, the average business traveler will spend three years waiting for flights and two simply traveling to and from the airport. That's why tech companies woo clients with the promise that their technology could make O'Hare and LaGuardia obsolete, and it's why travelers try to make up for that lost time taking their technology with them.
Can you put a price on business traveler's lost time? The National Business Travel Association has tried. It claims that, given the average wage of these roughly 248 million business travelers, a six-minute-per-flight increase in delays costs corporations more than $794 million.
The only way to keep working, even when your airplane isn't, is to come prepared. Nichol & Company, a New York-based public relations firm, equips travelers with a notebook computer and makes sure they can access their company e-mail. They also send the traveler out with all the necessary software pre-installed.
They didn't always. Greg Pitkoff, a senior vice president, says they only learned their lesson last summer, when he and his wife took their infant daughter on a mini-vacation to Chicago. Pitkoff planned to leave Chicago on a Wednesday, spend Thursday in New York, and fly to Boston on Friday for a meeting with a client. But he never made it out of O'Hare. A thunderstorm hit and his flight to New York was canceled. He tried, unsuccessfully, to book a direct flight to Boston, and soon discovered that all flights to New York the following day were full as well.
He was stuck in Chicago until Friday. However, the client still had a newsletter ready to go to press, so Pitkoff camped out in a friend's guest room. Meanwhile, a four-year-old and a two-year-old circled his feet while he downloaded software. He realized he'd need an Adobe Acrobat viewer to even read the newsletter, so he downloaded the software. Only then did he discover he couldn't access his e-mail.
Nichol & Company uses Pegasus Mail, a free e-mail client created by New Zealand-based software maker David Harris, which allows employees to check their e-mail remotely. Though Pitkoff was able to log into the system, he couldn't access any of his archived e-mail -- only new messages.
The situation created headaches for Pitkoff's coworkers and his clients. Someone at the home office had to help him get the computer set up correctly, as well as field calls from the clients. "If I needed a file, I had to have someone send it to me again," Pitkoff says. "People were asking questions about when something was sent, and I couldn't really allay their concerns because I didn't have access to my records of when I had sent something."
In a company with only 15 employees, the responsibilities trickle down quickly, and Pitkoff's colleagues were left to pick up the slack. "People were being called to answer questions that they couldn't really answer," Pitkoff says. "Had I been here and been able to point to something immediately, things would have gone a lot more smoothly.
To ensure access to information at the office, Foster recommends that business travelers take advantage of the various online data-backup services. Companies that offer such services include Myspace (www.freediskspace.com), Xdrive Technologies (www.xdrive.com), and i-drive (www.idrive.com). These sites offer anywhere from 50MB to 300MB of free disk space for storing files that can be retrieved from any computer.
Pitkoff is still unable to access his archived e-mail when he's away from the office, and for that reason, he'd prefer to see them replace the e-mail system entirely.
Many travelers don't want to lug an office's worth of equipment around, and that's why some airlines and hotels now offer business centers and Internet uplinks to their connected clientele [see related articles]. It's important to know in advance what you're getting, since one firm's definition of "wired" may differ drastically from another's.
Marcella P. Mazzucca, director of global marketing for Sybari Software in East Northport, N.Y., has learned to always call ahead. When Mazzucca embarked on a recent trip to London, she had one goal: Fire the P.R. firm. Mazzucca's coworkers back at the office had e-mailed her the agenda on Monday -- a day after she arrived in London -- under the assumption that she would be able to retrieve her messages. She never got it.
She found herself sitting across the table from the P.R. firm, but had no idea what to say.
"I arrived at the meeting up in arms because I had no idea what the agenda was going to be," she says. "This was a last attempt to interview the PR agency and see how effectively they were working for us. Because I wasn't prepared and I didn't have that agenda, I wasn't able to say, 'Listen, these are these are the commitments you have not kept and unfortunately, we cannot continue doing business.'
Mazzucca had booked herself into a hotel that advertised itself as high-tech friendly, and tried to access e-mail on her notebook computer. When she's on the road, Mazzucca customarily dials into a UUNet account through a standard phone connection. Doing so from the hotel would be simple, it seemed, since it offered Ethernet connections and state-of-the-art digital phone lines.
Unfortunately, such phone lines aren't conducive to most dial-up modem connections, and the hotel's own network couldn't provide the precise IP address. Mazucca recommends calling ahead to find out if a hotel supports a regular dial-up connection. If not, you'll need to make sure your laptop has a local-area network (LAN) card.
Don't Forget The Details
Travelers can't do much to keep the skies clear and the planes running, but they can take steps to cut costs and keep working. Foster says he always keeps his laptops (he has five) as carry-on luggage, but his nightmare trip to Maryland has made him even more careful. He now carries on everything he needs to deliver a presentation, including his power cords and a projection unit that uses standard connections.
Besides planning ahead, American Express' Pacheco recommends looking into alternate local airports that are usually less susceptible to long delays. Companies can also negotiate guaranteed rates with hotels and car-rental services, which can come in handy when an employee is forced to spend an extra day or two on the road. "That's something you should build into a contract," Pacheco says.
The airline still hasn't found Foster's luggage. "They haven't even said sorry," Foster says. "I've turned it over to my lawyer." He estimates the value of his luggage and its contents at $7,700. However, no one can reimburse him for his lost time.