How to be more productive while traveling for business

Last year, the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) estimated that employers spent $1.25 trillion on business travel. Though the allure of a jet-setting lifestyle may appeal to some, the reality can be quite awful. When you do manage to visit a new city, you spend most of your time in your hotel room or on-site at a client’s office instead of roaming around town. Spending half your work week on planes, trains and buses is exhausting. And, frankly, no one is paying you for your time on the road. While you are traveling, your productivity and happiness can take a huge hit.

I interviewed several entrepreneurs and salespeople to discover their best tips and tricks for thinking more practically about business travel, getting more work done while on the road, being a more effective collaborator while working remotely, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle throughout their trips.


Optimizing for cost, time and value

In recent years, the salespeople I have spoken with have deliberately slashed the number of trips they take to meet with prospects and clients. In the past, many volunteered to go off-site because they wanted to explore a new city or to revisit a place they enjoyed. But with a demanding sales quota, they soon realized that leisure time was a luxury. All the hours spent on planes, trains and buses didn’t translate into sales; they weren’t necessarily more effective at closing a sale in-person than over the phone. When it came time to file their expense reports, something didn’t add up, either; they had a hard time justifying the high cost of travel including airfare, accommodations, ground transportation, and meals.

Consequently, they decided to make business travel a last-resort option instead of their first preference. In the rare instance that they do travel off-site, they ask themselves:

  • How big is this account and is it worth my time? From a cost and time perspective, one way to evaluate every travel opportunity is by measuring your hourly earnings against the net proceeds of the account. For example, if including your salary and commissions, you earn $80,000 a year working 50 weeks each year and 40 hours each week, you, on average, earn $40 an hour. To justify a 10-hour day trip to meet a potential customer, you would want to earn at least $400 off the commission to make the trip worthwhile. Of course, the math is simple when your employer picks up the tab. As a business owner, you have to be more conservative in your estimates. For instance, you must also take into account the associated costs of travel such as transportation and lodging.
  • Can I accomplish more with this client on-site than I can if I were working remotely? Various research suggests face-to-face meetings are crucial in helping organizations build trust with their customers but that assumes professionals are more charismatic in-person than they are over the phone, video chat or email. Off-site, getting access to certain documents or recruiting help from other team members can be difficult, too. Carefully consider whether you’re really more effective at in-person interactions before you book your next trip.
  • What are the opportunity costs? Even profitable business opportunities can be costly; your time spent traveling to secure new accounts or retain existing clients may be better spent on other efforts. Using the example above, if, within the same 10-hour period, you could cold call 100 new prospects and close five new accounts with an average commission of $200 each, you would take home $1,000 instead of $400.

As some of the salespeople I have spoken with cut down on their travel schedules, they noticed skyrocketing personal sales performances. In lieu of travel, they have opted to leverage video conferencing tools to substitute in-person meetings. That way, they can still have face-to-face interactions with prospects and clients without ever stepping out of their office.


Keeping productivity levels high wherever you are

One of the biggest challenges with business travel is its disruption to your normal work routine, which can derail productivity. On the other hand, Kyle Wong, CEO and co-founder of Pixlee, sees it as an opportunity.

“A trick I like to do is save all of my long-form writing or thinking for flights,” says Wong. For most people, the six-hour flight he takes between SFO and JFK can be grueling. But Wong treats his in-flight experience as the perfect distraction-free environment. “For instance, if I want to think through a new pricing strategy, then a flight is a great time to brainstorm because you don’t have any distractions.”

Though Richard Tam, founder of Brooklyn Wolf, only finds himself on the road twice a year, his trips can be painfully long. He makes extended visits to Shanghai and Ningbo, China, where his manufacturing partners are headquartered. During Tam’s 15-hour flights, he stays up to combat jet lag and commits the early half of his flight to tackling creative projects such as copywriting and blog posts for his business. For the latter half, when Tam has exhausted his mental capacities, he unwinds with a movie marathon.

When Garrett Neiman, CEO and co-founder of CollegeSpring, is away from his desk, he makes every traveling moment count. “I use tethered internet on my phone so that I can answer emails while I’m in a taxi or Uber,” says Neiman. “I also use Siri to transcribe emails while I am walking through the airport terminal. I fly on the same airlines regularly so that I have status, which helps me get through security and board in a streamlined way. And I always purchase internet on the plane so I can stay on top of things.” Since a majority of his working hours (50-75 percent) are spent on the road, Neiman has developed a system that keeps him just as productive as if he had stayed in-office the whole time.

As far back as he can remember, Adam Honig, CEO and founder of Spiro Technologies, has averaged 130 days of business travel each year. To create a sense of normalcy, he familiarizes himself with cool spots to work in. Honig explains, “I’m constantly scouting out locations that I can work in while I’m traveling around. Some hotels have great places to work for an hour, and others play music just to be annoying. We joined WeWork because it gives us the option to use their offices world-wide. There’s no extra fee, and you can get a seat, a conference room or a desk wherever you go.”


Staying present with your team when you are available

Tools such as video conferencing have made it easier than ever for companies to bridge the physical gap between team members at different offices and colleagues temporarily away on on work trips. When Kyle Wong is away from Pixlee HQ, he telecommutes using the office robot, which allows him to join in on meetings wherever he is.

Of course, business travel can create strain on collaborative projects. When James Lu Morrissey, COO and co-founder of Shearwater International, expects to be away for a few days participating or speaking at education-related conferences or meeting with potential clients, he strategically schedules meetings with his team before and after his trip to ensure they have everything they need in his absence and to be able to regroup when he returns.

One way companies can limit the negative impact business travel can have on productivity is by leveraging internal collaboration tools. Melissa Gordon, an account executive at Leopard, uses iMeet Central to effectively oversee projects that include multiple participants. At Collabosphere, she shared, “I don’t have to search through emails to catch up on what’s been happening. I can just go to the tool, I go to our project page, and I can just scan quickly through the past few conversations.” This saves her time and effort since she doesn’t have to track down a colleague who would otherwise have to update her on recent events.


Making the most of business travel when it is absolutely necessary

In an article for The New York Times, Steven Kurutz solemnly states, “A specific condition afflicts business travelers: Call it hotel gloom, an amorphous melancholy that seems to thrive in the perfectly serviceable hotel rooms of the $200-a-night-and-under variety.”

Indeed, there is little glitz and glamour to a frequent on-the-road-for-work lifestyle, and it can be quite miserable. To combat “hotel gloom,” Honig of Spiro Technologies seeks out first- or second-degree connections in the cities he visits to have coffee, drinks or dinner with. This allows him to have a healthy work-life balance that keeps him sane and leaves room for serendipity.

For instance, “Last summer I was in Shanghai where I knew no one, but my brother-in-law’s friend’s former roommate was there. He was from South America originally, so he invited me out to a salsa dancing meetup on the Bund [a popular waterfront area], which was great!” When traveling to unfamiliar territory, it can be intimidating to explore the town on your own. Thus, Honig advises, “You need to be open to new experiences.”

A major issue that some business travelers encounter is an inclination to lead a sedentary lifestyle, and that can be a slippery slope. So, Neiman of CollegeSpring is deliberate about making time for exercise.

“I develop an exercise schedule for the week in advance and hold myself accountable to it even when I’m traveling; I’ll schedule lighter workouts on travel days so that the bar isn’t too high after a long flight. I leave space in my schedule for exercise because it is tougher to get it done while traveling if you don’t explicitly leave space for it. I try not to book early morning meetings the first day after I travel east because it can be tough with the time change.”

Finally, Krish Chopra, managing member of Blue Ink Advisors, uses time spent traveling to intentionally break routine and catch up on items on his personal to-do list. Chopra notes, “If I fly–always, always, always pay for WiFi. Since I use Google Voice, I text everyone–clients, friends, and family. It gives me a dedicated few hours to reach out to everyone. You know the friends or prospective clients that you wish you spoke with more. This is the perfect time.”

Post by Danny Wong

Danny Wong is an entrepreneur, marketer, and writer. He is the co-founder of Blank Label (an award winning menswear company focusing on luxury made-to-measure garments) and does marketing at Grapevine (a platform that drives eCommerce, helping retailers partner with YouTube celebrities). Tweet him @dannywong1190