Starting in 2000, my primary job has been to travel around the country to meet with potential clients or to work with existing customers. For eight years, I worked for Optima Graphics and for the past year and a half, I have worked for Classic Exhibits/ClassicMODUL. Generally on my trips, I leave either on a Sunday evening or early Monday morning, fly to a city, and visit customers within the area (or within an hour or two of the city). I’ve always tried to schedule a mid-afternoon flight home on Friday so I was back by Friday evening. Ten years later (almost), I am a true road warrior and feel qualified to share these tips for a successful business trip.
Airlines and Airports. This may sound like a cliché, but the most important thing is a good start. That means NO DELAYS or excessive layovers on the outbound flight. I’ve learned to stick with one airline as my primary carrier. Two million airline miles later, American Airlines is my go-to airline. It’s great for some things . . . horrible for others. They have the best “loyalty” program of the major carriers. You get more miles, more upgrades, and more “favors” than the others. The downside is O’Hare. I’m based in Michigan and fly into O’Hare a lot. No airport in the world is capable of handling the two largest airlines as hubs (American and United). Chicago’s O’Hare is no exception. Weather is only one of the problems. The other is space for all the airplanes. Obviously, you can’t control the weather, the airlines, or mechanical problems. You simply hope for the best and cross your fingers.
Luggage. NOTHING is more frustrating than not having your luggage arrive, especially if you have product samples for your sales calls. I am convinced there is nothing you can do to totally prevent this situation (short of carrying on all your luggage), but there is something you can do to lessening the chances of your luggage getting lost. No matter what — DON’T SWITCH AIRLINES! For instance, don’t fly from Jacksonville, FL to LAX and switch from American Airlines to Delta in Cincinnati. I guarantee that something will happen, and your luggage will NEVER make the transfer. If you have to switch, ALWAYS stay on the same carrier. All of this is just the pre-cursor to the crux of the trip – visiting your clients or potential clients.
Rental Cars. Here is where an entire day can be wasted. You get to the rental car counter. You have a valid reservation that you made a month in advance only to be told that they are out of cars, OR they have a 2-door roller-skate for the same price. Now on my visits, I often bring product samples packed a portable exhibit case or two, along with along with my luggage and briefcase. Do the rental car companies honestly think this will fit in a sub-compact without attaching a U-Haul trailer? Jerry Seinfeld got it right in a Seinfeld episode when he said to the rental agent, “See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to ‘hold’ the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.” So please AVIS, Thrifty, Budget or any other rental car company, please have what I reserved or something larger — NOT SMALLER.
Food. Finally! I am on the road and ready to see customers and/or prospects. Classic Exhibits has some of the nicest people as distributors. That makes being away from home 125 + nights a year a lot more palatable. They are always gracious and kind. I try to reciprocate by taking them to lunch or dinner. There is only one thing I ask, and this isn’t such a big deal at lunch but at dinner it is. Please . . . NO CHAIN FOOD. My travel pals and I have talked about this dozens of times. We can eat at Applebee’s, Outback, TGIF or Ruby Tuesday at home. We want someplace local. If you have a local place that is KNOWN for something, then that is where we want to go. A little bistro, Thai, sushi, the world’s best burger, BBQ, even a café that features the best PBJ. Take us there . . . that is exactly where we want to go.
Your Responsibility. The distributor/customer does have some responsibility. I flew in to meet with you. We made an appointment, and you agreed to the appointment. I know you are busy which is why I made the appointment at a specific time and date. Please be there (unless it is an emergency) and please have the “right” people ready to meet. It doesn’t make any sense for me (an exhibit sales guy) to talk to your janitorial staff about hybrid displays or MODUL aluminum extrusions. I need to talk to your designers, project managers, and sales consultants. Your only other responsibility is to tell us the truth. When I ask how we are doing, I want/need to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. How has the company performed recently? To be totally honest, that doesn’t include bringing up something that happened three years ago. It’s been three years. I am talking about recent history! We can’t improve unless we know how we are performing for your team and your customers right now.
Hotel. I’ve completed my appointments for the day, which typically go fine (I do this for a living after all), and check into the hotel. My needs are minimal when it comes to the hotel. I want a clean room, a convenient location, a good shower, and a great bed. Both the Hilton and Marriott chains have really upgraded the quality of their beds in recent years. Quite simply, all I really want is to get in, get some sleep, see the sports scores, and be gone by 7:30 or so in the morning.
Headed Home. The trip is coming to a close. If you are like me, you’ve have had a good trip and spent some quality time with your customers. Now, it’s time for me to return to Newaygo, Michigan. My goal is always to get there before my family goes to bed Friday night. In order for that to happen, the flight better be on time.
One last tip. You’re back at your home airport. Before you head home, there are three final things to ensure a successful business trip. If they go right, it’s perfect. If they go wrong, it’s a disaster. Find your car keys (only a problem once), make sure you didn’t leave your headlights or more likely an interior light on in your vehicle (unfortunately this has happened more times than I want to remember), and lastly hope that your vehicle is NOT buried in snow. That can ruin any trip, especially if you are coming from the South.
To our customers at Classic Exhibits and ClassicMODUL, you are a joy to visit. I truly enjoy talking shop and discovering ways for us to both grow and prosper. See you on one of my next trips this year – assuming my luggage arrives and I’m not riding a moped to the meeting.
Till the next time,