Why are globe-hopping sales and marketing execs so frazzled? Experts say the anxieties of being in an unfamiliar place, combined with the worries about being away from the home and office and the pressures of always being on the go, have pushed some to the limit. Add to this the other things that typically come along with international travel – jet lag, poor nutrition, and dehydration – and you’re bound to have some serious problems.
“We’re just beginning to understand the enormous psychological demands of frequent international travel,” says Jim Striker, a World Bank psychologist, who said that until the World Bank study, little was known about the stresses of frequent international business travel.
Does this mean that executives who log thousands of frequent flyer miles overseas each year are doomed to have a nervous breakdown?
Maybe not. Those who have taken charge of their travel – rather than letting it control them – have created their own personal strategies to keep themselves in good psychological health on and off the road.
ALONE AND AFRAID
In The Accidental Tourist, William Hurt played a reluctant travel writer who practically broke out in hives whenever he was in an unfamiliar country where he didn’t know the language, the culture, or how to get around.
Hurt’s character was fictitious, but his sentiments are echoed by many a sales or marketing executive. Monty Powerstein, a regional sales manager for a major computer company who frequently travels to Russia to make sales calls, says he often has trouble adjusting when he’s in a new country on business. On his first several trips to Russia, Powerstein said he was overwhelmed by culture shock – he camped out every night in his room because he was fearful of being mugged (before his first trip, he’d read several reports of violence targeted at tourists there). “I knew no one in Russia the first time I went there,” he said. “At night, I’d sit in my room and get a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I did leave my room, the heart palpitations would start.”
A San Francisco-based marketing executive for Nike, who often travels to Europe on business, says he used to become lonely and depressed while on lengthy trips overseas – so much so, that he would try to quell those feelings by tossing back several vodka tonics and smoking at least a pack of Camel no-filters each evening in a hotel bar. “Then I’d be drank, nauseous, and depressed,” he says. “I was a real head case.”
But many sales executives have learned to combat feelings of isolation abroad. Since his first trip to Japan, Crawford has made it a policy to learn as much as he can about a country before he visits it for the first time. He now gets thorough briefings about a country’s norms, culture, and transportation systems before making a trip, and often scans Web sites for travel tips.
Powerstein solicits the help of Kroll Associates (see sidebar on this page), a travel service that faxes “Travel Watch” briefs to business travelers that cover safety, transportation, news, and customs of specific countries. “It gives me some peace of mind when I know what to expect in a country I’m visiting,” he says.
Other executives review the U.S. State Department’s “Travel Warnings” Web sites, which offer traveler safety tips to help prevent stressful incidents. One recent report warned travelers who venture to Mexico to solicit taxis only by telephone, and told of a U.S. businessperson who was recently robbed there by an unauthorized taxi operator.
Being able to communicate in the language of a host country is another key. Powerstein is in the midst of taking a Russian course, but says even learning a few words such as “please,” “help,” and “thank you,” can be extremely beneficial. “In any country, if people see that you’re trying, it helps,” he says. “You’ll make immediate allies.”
Jim Dittman, president of Dittman Incentive Marketing, who has flown more than six million miles in his 30-year career, also recommends making an effort to meet with contacts in the evenings, rather than being alone in a hotel room. Since he’s in the incentive business, he often calls destination management companies in the country he’s visiting and asks them to meet with him. He also makes it a habit to venture out of a hotel and try restaurants that are strongly recommended by residents of the city he’s visiting. “Go out and get a flavor for the place you’re visiting, if you can,” he says. “Travel doesn’t have to be depressing. Make an effort to enjoy yourself.”
TROUBLE ON THE HOME FRONT
Some sales executives who travel overseas don’t stress out about the trip itself, but instead are fraught with worry – and often guilt – over what’s going on back home or in the office, since long distance travel typically keeps them away far longer than domestic trips.
Tedd Nieman, vice president of Citicorp’s credit card division, who spends about 25 percent of his time in Europe, says he frequently worries about his wife. She’s visually impaired and cannot drive. “My being overseas greatly restricts her activities, sometimes for a week or more,” he says. “That’s been very difficult to deal with.”
Dittman, too, says being overseas on long trips stressed him out when his two children were younger. “There was a time in my life when I was gone for so long on business trips that when I called home, I truly couldn’t determine whether the voice on the other line was my son or my daughter,” he says. “That was extremely unnerving.”
At least Dittman got to speak to his family on occasion. Because of time differences, some globetrotting sales execs say they rarely get a chance to contact their loved ones by phone. Sheila Lockhart, CEO of Lockhart Enterprises, a Boston-based consulting firm, often travels to Singapore for business. She says not being able to call her four-year-old daughter and “tuck her in” each night is unsettling. “When I’m in the country, at least I can call at a reasonable hour,” she says. “When I’m in Singapore, the time difference makes it too difficult.” At times she’s so desperate to talk to her husband and daughter, Lockhart says that she leaves a message for her husband to wake her up in the middle of the night. “It’s the only way we can have real contact,” she says.
Others have found that faxes and e-mail are the only way to keep in close touch. John Cluff, a sales executive for a telecommunications firm, says that when he’s traveling in Asia for business, he gives his two six-year-old twin sons his hotel’s fax number, and encourages them to fax him drawings or other things they’re working on in school. In turn, he’ll fax daily messages to the family’s home fax machine. “It makes me feel a little closer to them,” he says.
Others make the most of their time at home before a long international trip. Before he leaves on a business trip, David Riddell, vice president of certificate marketing for Marriott International, gives his three boys – ages 10, seven, and three – a geography lesson, pointing out on the globe the country where he’s going. “They like to brag to their friends about where Dad’s going,” he says. He also strives to limit international travel to weekdays whenever possible, saving weekends for the family.
BACK TO WORK
Even if being away from home doesn’t make a sales exec lose it, many who go abroad find themselves constantly fretting about how their reps are doing back in the office. And time differences and technology difficulties don’t make overseas communication any easier.
To eliminate workplace worries, many globe-trotting sales executives try their best to keep in close contact with the office using a variety of technologies. Crawford usually attempts to communicate with his reps via e-mail and fax, although e-mail can be a challenge when he’s in some destinations. “In places like Hong Kong, there’s no consistency with telecommunications,” he says. “I might be able to check my e-mail, I might not. That can get a little frustrating.”
Sales executives who want to eliminate e-mail headaches might do some research on the countries they’re visiting beforehand to make sure e-mail is even possible. There are a few Web sites available that offer country-by-country information on getting smoother modem connections. A good example of such a site is http://www.teleadapt.com, which offers suggestions to improve modem transmission in more than 260 countries.
When e-mail is impossible, Crawford has his assistant pull his incoming messages off his computer and fax them to him. “A fax is usually more of a sure thing than an e-mail, at least in some countries,” he says.
Whatever you do, don’t ignore your reps just because communication is challenging, says Christine Casati, president of China Human Resources Group Inc., a firm that provides management consulting to U.S. corporations in China. Casati says she always attempts to communicate important information to her reps as it happens – via e-mail, phone, or fax – rather than waking to compile it all in a trip report when she gets home. She asks them to communicate problems to her immediately as well. “Don’t let problems pile up,” says Casati, who is away from her Princeton, New Jersey, office about three fourths of the time for travel in Asia and Europe. “Solve them wherever you are, even if it’s on a plane, or you’re going to have big problems when you get home.”
She also gives her reps an excrutiatingly detailed itinerary, along with contact numbers and specific times to call her. And Casati makes sure they’re aware of the time differences, so they won’t wake her at 3 a.m. with a question that could wait until morning. “If you want to reduce stress, you don’t want someone calling you in the middle of the night,” she says. “You’ll never get back to sleep, and let me tell you: You desperately need any rest you can get on an overseas trip.” Casati also lets her clients know before she leaves when she’ll be available – and awake – to speak to them.
Of course, the ultimate stress-buster is to make sure you have a team back home that can handle problems in your absence, especially if it is an extended one. Marriott’s Riddell, who manages a team of six, says he trusts his reps, and has empowered them to make decisions in his absence. “You’ve got to have confidence in your people, or you’re dead in the water,” he says. “And if they don’t make the right decision, that’s OK, too. If people aren’t allowed to do that, they’re never going to grow.”
And if your reps do happen to make a mistake or have a problem that you absolutely can’t deal with until you get back, don’t let yourself sweat the entire plane ride home. Better to watch a movie or relax with a good book. “You’ve got to keep your cool, no matter what’s going on at home,” says Citicorp’s Nieman. “If you stress over everything that’s going on in your absence, you’ll make yourself sick. And that’s not going to do anyone any good.”