Pre-Travel: Get Up and Go!
Making preparations probably constitutes the biggest hassle of any journey. And unlike those lucky folks who travel for pleasure, entrepreneurs (or their employees) embarking on business trips must tackle a confusion of extra details - a process that can render the whole experience a nightmare.
Fortunately, industry experts say an efficient pre-travel agenda can smooth bumps in the roughest road. The key lies in allowing ample time before departure to plan the details and to tie up loose ends. Whether turning to the pros for help or opting for a do-it-yourself approach, take note of the following strategies to make business travel a treat.
Travel Arrangements: Seeking an Agent
Though the Internet offers many services once exclusive to travel pros, some -- but not all -- business owners find themselves regretting that they've opted for the do-it-yourself method. Before hitting the road, for instance, the time needed for booking flights and hotels can interfere with other preparations. En route, airlines, hotel and itinerary glitches may sap energy and build frustration, undermining the traveler's ability to conduct business effectively.
Travel agents do charge a commission. On the other hand, they have the capacity to cater to specific needs and preferences, offer money-saving deals beyond what's available via Internet, and are a blessing in emergencies. For companies with employees, an agent can guarantee that personnel stick to the owner's travel policies.
When searching for an agent, experts say it's wise to:
- Ask friends, family and colleagues who they've used successfully.
- Visit several agencies and speak with staff persons. Agents should be good listeners and also willing to answer questions.
- Look for a good match. The selected agency's "style" should dovetail with the client's needs and wishes.
- Seek properly credentialed agents, preferably members of the American Society of Travel Agents, which enrolls more than 20,000 professionals in 140 countries.
"Do-it-yourself" travel CAN work.
Given that the heart of entrepreneurship is a willingness to take chances, some business owners insist on overseeing their companies' travel arrangements. This should pose no problem -- other than an unavoidable time commitment -- especially if the do-it-yourselfer has made friends with the Internet. Sites like www.sidestep.com, which searches hundreds of travel Web sites for the best deals in airfare, lodging, etc., offers the convenience of a personal travel agent with a few taps of the computer keyboard.
That said, pundits do suggest some strategies targeting reservations, expenses, safety and other business-travel related issues:
- When making airline, hotel and car-rental arrangements, check out companies that offer special deals to business owners. Remember that not all travel-oriented businesses advertise savings, so it's always smart to ask.
- Run online price comparisons using Web sites such as travelocity.com, expedia.com and orbitz.com. These allow price comparisons on airlines, hotels and rental cars, often at rates better than the providers advertise. .
- For travel in the United States, check with the destination cities' chambers of commerce and convention/visitors bureaus for recommendations regarding meeting facilities, lodgings, restaurants and professional networking opportunities. Cities nationwide have gone online with this information, so simply log on to access.
- When employees hit the road on business, the National Business Travel Association advises that owners set and enforce company wide travel policies; make finding and booking travel quick and easy; aggregate purchasing of travel and related services in order to get the best value; and centralize information on all traveling employees to facilitate rapid response to internal or external crises.
Change Voicemail and E-Mail: Electronic Messages Mean Happy Clients
Picture this: Jim B. calls, anxious to make a big deal he's been hinting at for months. But Jane W., the company's owner, is out of the country -- and will be for two weeks. Unfortunately, she never changed the voice mail message, and Jim's e-mails keep piling up in the inbox. After three or four days, he gives up and gives the contract to Jane's biggest competitor.
The trick for avoiding this sort of catastrophe is simple, according to the experts. If possible, owners of one-man operations should notify clients and customers of their pending travels, either by telephone, e-mail or short written correspondences at least seven days before departure.
Office productivity programs frequently include e-mail management features such as automatic response, an effective way for a computer to shoot back a reply once the owner is out of the office. Additionally, virtually all land-line and cellular phone providers offer user options regarding greeting, messaging, call forwarding and other functions. For added insurance, entrepreneurs on the go must record voicemail messages detailing their departure/return dates, as well as alternative ways to contact them. Realistically, today's entrepreneurs have little excuse to be out of touch
Notify Customers and Employees: Just a Keypad Away
In a firm with employees, it's a good idea to designate a key staffer to take client calls and to troubleshoot, as well as to act as a resource for employees. Again, clients and staffers should have possession of critical information before the owner's departure.
High-tech gadgets such as the smartphone allow travelers to virtually carry their offices with them, making consistent availability a cinch. Wireless functions include calling, secure e-mailing, text messaging, instant messaging, voice mail and Web connections. Depending on the choice of hardware and software, costs run from less than a hundred dollars up to $1,000.
Of course, a basic laptop computer or notebook outfitted for Internet access provides a larger screen and keyboard, making the writing, reading and transmission of longer e-mails and attachments easier on the eyes - and nerves.
MapQuest and Directions: Taking the Right Way
What with airline cancellations and delays, using the car for shorter business trips may be the cheapest and least stressful way to get there. Travel pros suggest tapping into online resources, such as MapQuest, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps and Rand McNally, for maps and door-to-door directions. Typically, these provide mileage and lapsed time between legs, local street names (as well as state/national highway designations) and even historic landmarks.
A few sites also offer business-related solutions, including mapping software and platforms that allow companies to systematize location-based services via Web sites and mobile technology.
Probably the most familiar driver's software on today's market is the GPS system, which operates from signals beamed from satellites to cars. Drivers then receive verbal directions guiding them from one location to the next, a particularly valuable gadget for business travelers whose work encompasses geographically scattered locations.
Cutting-edge GPS models even include large screens that superimpose street maps to accompany spoken instructions. Many newer cars come with factory-installed systems, but add-ons are relatively inexpensive. Prices start at less than $200 ranging to more than $1,000.
Checklists: Dotting every "I" and Crossing All the "T's"
Even the most organized business travelers have found themselves stranded in airports due to cancelled and delayed flights, or in strange cities minus critical computer files. To sidestep these aggravations, experts suggest using checklists in the 24-hour period prior to departure. This process may take a bit of time initially, but once the basic format is in place, travelers can use these "to-do" forms again and again.
The following suggestions can serve as a starting point:
- Personal luggage: When packing for a flight, try to get everything into one carry-on bag to avoid lost luggage or additional charges and long waits in baggage claim.
- Liquids and gels: U.S. Transportation Security Administration regulations mandate that carry-on liquids and gels be in containers no larger than three ounces and stored in one-quart clear plastic zip-top bags, one per passenger. Larger containers that are half full or rolled-up toothpaste tubes are not allowed, nor are gallon-size bags or bags that are not zip-top. These regulations are constantly changing, so visit www.tsa.gov for updates.
- Personal items: Include duplicates of sleepwear and toiletries, and pack easy-care, basic clothing to mix and match. Pack prescription medications in their original bottles in a carry-on bag.
- Briefcase: Include a travel folder for files, presentation materials, travel itineraries and other business must-haves. Pack a foreign phrase book, extra notebooks, pens, a calculator, business cards, a mini-stapler and paper clips. A large envelope or zippered pouch for receipts and expense forms is a good idea, too.
- Computer: Pack an adaptor, extra diskettes and CDs, a flash drive or memory stick, and a system boot disk. Include a note card with emergency repair numbers or Web sites. Also, it makes sense to set up a remote PC account. Such software, like Gotomypc.com, allows laptop users to securely access an office or home computer from almost any location via the Internet. In a matter of seconds, traveling professionals can get hold of important files, documents and data stored on a distant PC. These capabilities particularly come in handy when a user can't access e-mail. Remote PC solutions can cost as low as $10 a month and provide an invaluable safety net. Make sure to keep a copy of your Remote PC address and password on hand when traveling.
- Cellphone: No matter the destination, travelers should carry a portable battery pack. Since the lifespan of a battery generally runs anywhere from one to three days, having this backup is extremely important when carting around a mobile phone on long-distance travel. Other ways to maximize battery power include keeping the battery healthy. You do this by fully charging and discharging the unit at least once every two weeks. Also, do not leave the battery in a charger for more than 24 hours as this might result in shortened lifespan.
- Wallet: Carry separate credit cards for business and personal purchases. Instead of large sums of cash, opt for traveler's checks or use an ATM card at your destination.
- Air travel: Before heading for the airport, hit the Internet to check for flight changes or cancellations. Most airports host sites that offer this information in real time. For electronic purchases, most airlines also allow passengers to print out their boarding passes within 24 hours before departure. Once again, check with individual carriers for changes in check-in times and baggage requirements (weight and cost); and always allow extra time for security procedures.
- Rental cars: Investigate dealerships located off airport property. Usually, these are less expensive and within a short cab or shuttle ride. Take advantage of coupons and special offers, too.