A Big Misunderstanding

A Big Misunderstanding

Who is the most misunderstood person in America? Bill Gates, the uebergeek of Microsoft? Greta Van Susteren, the lawyer-turned-television-commentator whose eye job has overshadowed her news judgment? John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban?

Allow me to suggest that the most misunderstood person in America is you, the business traveler.

Think about it. Except for the odd detail–the barber without a clue who coifs Bill; the whereabouts of Roger Cossack, Greta’s erstwhile Burden of Proof co-host; and Lindh’s SAT scores–we know all we need to know about that Tedious Trinity. But have you ever heard a single nugget of truth about business travelers? Of course not, because nobody knows the troubles we’ve seen except us.

So let me redress the balance and codify the truth about business travelers.

Business travel is now so expensive that only the best, brightest and most important corporate citizens are permitted to go on the road. That means we are people of power and influence in our companies. We give directions or formulate strategies and expect people in our company to do what we tell them to do. We rarely hear the word “no” in our office. But then we go on the road and the answer is always “no.” “No,” you can’t upgrade to first class, or “No,” your reservation isn’t in the computer, or “No,” we don’t have your rental car. Worse, the people who tell us “no” on the road are generally overworked, underpaid clerks. They would never, ever say “no” to their bosses. But we are fair game. That’s why we are always frustrated and cranky. Somebody on the road just told us “no”–and we never saw it coming.

Business travelers don’t get to be people of power and influence within their companies without being good at what they do. We fight and win our battles in the dog-eat-dog, only-the-strong-survive, Darwinian world of free enterprise. We grow, learn, and conquer in the free and competitive marketplace of ideas, products and services. On the other hand, the airline industry has been deregulated for less than 25 years. Airline executives and corporate cultures aren’t even a generation removed from the cost-plus, quasi-utility environment of their past. And when they get into trouble, there always seems to be a politician in their back pocket with a tax break or a bailout. Every time we walk onto an airplane, we look at how things are run and we know we can manage better, market better, sell better, plan better and satisfy customers better than the arrogant, hot-house flowers who run the airlines. We’re tougher and smarter than most top airline managers and their incompetent and profligate ways make us angry.

When you wake up in the morning and stare into the mirror in your hotel room, you see a business person who happens to be working away from the office today. Your needs and goals and motivation are no different than yesterday, when you happened to be working at your desk. But no one else gets it. They think that stepping onto an airplane or checking into a hotel room magically transformed you into a “traveler,” a mythic beast who roams the globe in search of diversion, enlightenment and pleasure. You’re just a stranger in a strange land trying to get your work done, yet the whole world treats you as if you’re a globe-trotting sybarite on holiday.

It may be a mixed metaphor, but it’s true: The airlines drive the bus. They lead, and we are often forced to follow. They control our destinies as well as our destinations. We may spend more time (and money) in hotels and rented cars, but our lives on the road are dominated by our relationship with the airlines. Maybe it’s because we spend all that time in a metal tube with our lives literally in their hands. Whatever the reason, what the airlines do affects our mental, business and physical equilibrium more than anything the hotel or car-rental industries do.

OUR 80/20 RULE
The rest of the world lumps all business travelers into one group. We know better. The 80 percent of us whose travels are primarily domestic know that we lead totally different lives from the 20 percent of us who are international travelers. Domestic business travelers and international business travelers have nothing in common except that we know the rest of the world doesn’t understand the differences between us.

Someone please tell the world’s marketers that the road to our hearts, minds and wallets is not paved with frequent-flyer miles and frequent-stay points. Real business travelers have all the miles and points they need–and far more free trips than we can ever claim. We earn so many miles for expenditures on the core business-travel products (transportation, lodging, credit cards and telecommunications), we’re not going to buy a couch or a magazine because we get some more miles. Gamers may relish the opportunity to refinance their mortgages or buy more pudding or switch gas stations for miles, but real business travelers are too busy for those games. What we want from the frequent-travel programs now is perks: the recognition that we are loyal, profitable customers; the upgrades and preferred treatment; a more comfortable life while we do business on the road; and a simple “thank you” for emptying our wallets into their cash registers.

This edition of Brancatelli originally appeared as a part of a regular series at http://www.joesentme.com. All rights reserved. This column was printed with permission.