Six Tips for a Successful Business Trip

By: Melissa Huffaker

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We’ve all been there before. It’s 8:00 PM the night before a 7:00 AM flight, and you still need to check the weather and figure out what to pack. Vacations can be a little easier to navigate, especially if you forget something, but business trips are often harder.

There are blogs and articles to turn to for what to wear and how to pack for an upcoming business trip, but what about how to mentally prepare yourself and your family? While being physically present and on time is important, being mentally present is crucial when traveling for business.

After traveling to multiple states and countries with varying amounts of timing and prep, here are the tips I try to live by when traveling for business.

Tip #1: Before the trip, set clear boundaries.

What do you personally need to succeed on a business trip? Do you need at least an hour of alone time each day? Do you need to exercise every other day?

Most of the time, business trips mean spending a lot of time with coworkers who may have different priorities and needs than you. The more you understand what you need to succeed during the trip, the more you can make decisions to support that. For example: If you need an hour by yourself every day, then you might choose to go back up to your hotel room after ending dinner at 10:00 PM instead of heading to the club with your coworkers.

If you’re having problems deciding what you might need, look at your current day-to-day life to discover any habits and rituals you’ve established. For me, I need alone time every day, which means that I pre-download a bunch of podcasts and e-books so that after my coworker and I have typed up meeting notes on the train, I can put in my headphones/pull out my e-book to build some space from chatty coworkers. I also really did choose to go back to my room after dinner instead of heading out to the club with my coworkers.

Tip #2: Create a family plan.

Business trips can be difficult for families due to long days, back-to-back schedules, and time differences. Before you leave, create a plan with your family.

Is there a time during the day where you and your significant other are both free? For me, that meant making sure I got up early and would have ten to twenty minutes free around 7:00 AM Shanghai time before leaving for the office; for my husband, it meant blocking off his calendar at 5:00 PM Seattle time and going into a conference room so that we can talk daily.

If you can’t both be free at the same time, use an app such as Marco Polo to leave video messages for each other. This can be great for families with kids, as you can record specific messages for every child.

[Related: Keeping it Real: Mom Strength at Home and the 9–5]

Tip #3: Maximize your schedule for you.

Most companies want to maximize the value of each business trip. This often results in cramming the schedule full of business-focused activities. This makes complete sense, given the bill the company is footing for the employees to travel to the required location.

In the days or weeks before the trip, schedules will be made and then edited several times to try and fit everything in that needs to be fit in. Make sure to feel confident and have a say in your day-to-day by being in on the planning of the schedule.

If the schedule has you visiting three different manufacturing plants in one day and it takes multiple hours to get between the factories, perhaps that day should be split into two days. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day.

Also, don’t just look at what time the last meeting takes place, but investigate when you would realistically be getting back to the hotel, and when/if dinner is scheduled. During my last trip to China, I had a day (Monday) which included three trains (the first at 6:00 AM, meaning I was out of the hotel by 4:30 AM), meetings with two different factories, eating dinner on the train, and then getting back to the hotel around 10:30 PM.

I knew that this Monday was going to be long and hard, so I made sure to have a late start and short day on the following Tuesday, and planned only my flight home for Wednesday. This allowed me my required alone time and room to exercise. Extending my trip could have been an option, but would have meant shuffling around some personal appointments that I didn’t want to move.

Making the most out of your trip requires you to be mentally and physically present, not just physically on-site. In addition, if you have pushed yourself the entire trip only to return to work tired, frazzled, and jet-lagged, are you or the company really benefiting from the compressed schedule?

Think of it this way: If you are going to spend this time away from your family and friends on a work trip, make sure the trip is optimized for you first. The company will benefit more in the long run by making the trip work for you instead of making you work for the trip.

Tip #4: Send meeting topics prior to leaving.

Another key to maximizing your trip is preparedness. Are you covering multiple topics with different groups, clients, or factories? Be prepared by sending a list of questions and topics to the various groups before you leave on your trip, or better yet, a couple of days before.

This will allow other participants to come to the meetings prepared with an agenda of what topics need to be discussed, allowing for all parties to have the best conversation possible. It also removes the pressure from you to remember every topic that needs to be discussed in that meeting, which is harder to remember after a late night of traveling or business dinner.

There is little worse than the feeling of sitting in a meeting that is essentially going nowhere while halfway across the world on a long business trip. Having multiple meetings back-to-back of that nature can easily leave a sour, demoralizing taste in everyone’s mouths. Set yourself up for success; send a list of topics for each meeting a couple of days before you leave.

[Related: Pushing Your Limits: The Intangible Skills I Gained Through Travel]

Tip #5: Customs and security.

You might think I am talking about airport security and customs, but that is relatively simple and straightforward, assuming that you double-checked if a visa was needed. Before you go through airport security and customs, spend your time researching and thinking about cultural customs and your personal security.

Domestic or international, either way, you need to understand the basics of the culture and customs of the location you are traveling. Women are still treated as second-class citizens in many countries throughout the world, and before you head there it is wise to understand the possible implications of that.

Are there specific clothes that you should or shouldn’t wear to better fit in? Are you going to be leading a meeting in a culture where women don’t traditionally lead meetings? If so, is there a way to make sure your entire team has a game plan to prevent the meeting from going sideways?

Is it safe for you to be walking the streets at night or taking a train/metro/bus? Do you need to check the license plate of the taxi before getting in to make sure that it is the taxi your company sent, even if they have your name in order to prevent needing to pay a bribe or worse? I could keep going, but I think you get the point.

You don’t have to think about all of these, especially for domestic travel, but you should have the number of your company’s travel agency in your phone, the country’s emergency number (such as 911), as well as the number and e-mail of someone at your company that can help you get out of a jam. These are numbers you do not want to spend time searching for if something happens and you need help.

Tip #6: Preparing for hygiene and preventing sickness.

It is easy to get sick while traveling on business. Airplanes have recirculated air…do I need to say more? Add in taxi/bus/train travel, extended hours, new environments, and weather, and that alone is enough for most people when traveling.

Now also consider the hygiene routines of the people in the country you are visiting, specifically if you are traveling outside of the US. Is it common for people to wash their hands with soap after the bathroom or just rinse with water? Do you need to carry tissues because most toilets are holes in the ground and not flushing machines? Does it make sense to carry wet wipes, as you’ll be spending time on commuter vehicles working and eating? What is the air pollution like in the region(s) you are traveling to? An air mask and eye drops may be good items to pack.

Additionally, spend some time thinking about any medicine you might need and not be able to find, then pack it. I tend to carry a couple doses of NyQuil with me and only one dose of DayQuil; if I’m not getting good sleep, I know that the trip is not going to be as productive.

[Related: Seven Business Takeaways From a Roman Holiday]

Melissa Huffaker is a mechanical design engineer with strong experience in diverse industries from transportation/trucking to consumer product design.

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