The Business of Going Away on Business

By Maria Pianelli

00-manhattan-through-an-airplane-window-03-12-12When I was a kid, business trips seemed like an inaccessible venture, reserved for hot shot CEOs and absentee parents. Thanks to cable television, these pseudo-vacations instantly conjured images of first class flights, champagne, beach-side resorts… and endless conferences held in hotel ballrooms. A nice life, a cushy life, but not necessarily the life for me.

I always envisioned myself confined in an office with only my imagination and the Internet to take me places during office hours, but a year into the PR world, I’ve flown out on two separate occasions.

The first was in mid-June to visit a client in the outskirts of Detroit. Until that point, my ventures had been limited to the East Coast, with an emphasis on New York (where I grew up) and New Paltz (where I went to school). I’d never studied abroad or left the country, never visited a relative in a distant state, let alone flown by myself. Fresh out of college and a month shy of my twenty-first birthday, I was unsure of what to expect or how someone so “green” could make an impactful impression.

The trip to Detroit was relatively short– fly out on the 25th, come back on the 26th. We went directly to our client’s office from the airport, stuffed within a rental car. Though I had worked with the team since January, I had only met a handful of them in person before. To correspond with someone daily on email– a name, a bunch of two-dimensional characters– and then see them take full form before you was a strange experience. Touring the building, the workspace, shaking hands with the team suddenly made things more real. From the get-go, I wanted to help them succeed, but hearing their plans in their own voices boosted my drive. We introduced ourselves over ice-breaker activities and a platter of Panera and then sat through a round of presentations. After evaluating what worked and didn’t work the past year, we hit the town to visit the Motown Museum in the heart of Motor City. Alongside clients and coworkers, I heard the story of Berry Gordy, walked through his house-turned-studio and followed in the footsteps of the Temptations, the Jackson Five and the Supremes, viewing the preserved waiting room and recording studio they once graced.

As all this was transpiring and I grasped our client’s goals for the remainder of the year, I learned another important lesson: expect the unexpected. Seconds before our flight took off, in the remaining moments before our phones were damned to airplane mode, a poorly-timed email came through. Another client of mine had just lost their Supreme Court case. After months of planning and waiting and tracking an unreal amount of coverage, the bomb was dropped at the worst possible time. There were so many things I wanted to do in that moment– call my team back in New York, hear from the client, figure out what the justices had said– but as the seatbelt light flickered on, I had to sit back and let go… at least for an hour and a half. Luckily, my team had things covered back at home, but I helped as I could, between meetings.

That’s another thing. Being away from the office and your ever-distracting inbox should be leveraged as best as possible. If you’re getting facetime with a client you don’t see often, be present. Be very present. I’m not even talking about the rude factor; business trips allow you to take a step back and really insert yourself in strategic conversation. You don’t know what you’ll miss by tuning out others’ ideas. Go with the flow of the day and participate as much as possible– unless absolutely essential, you could always answer that email later.

If you had asked me six months, a year ago, if I ever would have seen myself in Detroit, I’d have shot you down before I had a chance to consider otherwise. Being there made me wonder what other unexpected opportunities I would encounter on the job. Yes, it was exhilarating to see a new city, but perhaps even more so to test the boundaries of my imagination. When crammed in the office with a to-do list a mile long, it’s all-too easy to focus on simply getting things done without paying mind to the bigger picture. Suddenly, the client’s whole story is there in front of you and you have a chance to contribute to the overall strategy and plot plans beyond write this pitch or fill out that media list. Sculpting goals reignites passion and spurs dormant creativity. A good business trip should have you excited to go back to the office and start setting your work in motion… at least after the jet lag wears off.

On top of that, I felt closer to not only my clients, but to my team. Yes, we had spent a lot of time together while presenting our mid-year PR plan and a lot more time meticulously planning it, but getting to know them outside the office– at a museum, over delicious tacos during dinner, and while making fun of the frazzled travelers at the airport– brought us closer and made me appreciate all they bring to the table. I felt a sense of pride for my work, affection towards my team and motivation to support our client to the best of my ability.

Yes. Business trips are a strange beast. There are some perks—like having your travel, meals, activities and stay expensed— but ultimately, they serve as a motivator to put your best self forward.

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