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WHY BUSINESS TRAVEL IS STILL WORTH IT
By Joe Brancatelli
January 24, 2008 -- You know what they say: April in Paris. London by night. A long December in Los Angeles. Autumn in New York. Rome when a government falls.

Okay, I made that last one up. But here I am in the Italian capital again--and down goes Prodi. Again. Italian government number 61 since the end of World War II collapsed tonight when Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned after losing a confidence vote in Il Senato, the country's upper house.

Just before the mild-mannered Prodi went down, I mingled with the crowds surrounding the Palazzo Madama, home of the Senate. And as I simultaneously struggled to understand what the milling Italians were saying about the specifics of this particular crisi politica (political crisis) and tried to explain the mechanics of a confidence vote to a quartet of young American tourists, I realized I was having one of those unique business-travel moments.

The mechanics of life on the road, as we can all attest, aren't much to E-mail home about these days. The flights stink. The hotels get old. The food is forgettable. The delays are awful. The security is annoying.

But the one thing that makes business travel special is the opportunity to be somewhere in the world when something interesting is happening there. Business travel, if we do it right, forces us out of our cubicles and into the lives and times of people and places that we'd otherwise never experience.

For every rotten flight I've had, there's been a remarkable experience in a new place. Every mediocre hotel has been offset by a chance meeting with a fascinating person. Every smelly rental car has been balanced by a dazzling day poking around a town I never thought I'd visit. Every dinner of a Payday bar and a Diet Coke from the vending machine has been matched by a culinary treat somewhere in the world.

I was on business in Australia in 25 years ago when the Aussie yacht beat the American boat for the America's Cup. I didn't know anything about yachting. I didn't know the Americans had never lost an America's Cup before. But I'll never forget the celebration in Sydney. I was there because I was a business traveler.

I was working on a project in Atlanta in January, 1986, when the first Martin Luther King Day was observed. I've never felt anything quite so exhilarating. I was also in Los Angeles six years later when four cops were acquitted for the Rodney King beating. The fear and the frustration were bewildering.

I was in Hong Kong once during a typhoon, watching the amazing spectacle from a window in a hotel room high above Victoria Harbor. I've talked chemistry with a Nobel Laureate at an airport lounge--and I almost failed my high school chemistry class. I've discussed Pushkin with a Moscow cab driver--while we were driving past the Pushkin Statue in Pushkin Square. I met my wife on a business trip to Hawaii.

I have heard the call to prayers in Abu Dhabi and the church bells peel in the Marienplatz in Munich. I was in Rome when a different Italian government fell and in London when a new Prime Minister drove down the Mall to meet the Queen. I've been in Los Angeles on Oscar night. I've been to Paris in April, although Charles Aznavour was right: Paris is better in August. I've seen hyperinflation at work in São Paulo and the tiffin wallas (lunch delivery men) alighting from Churchgate, Mumbai's main train station.

Tonight, I can say that I saw a down-coated, middle-aged woman as she exited the headquarters of the political coalition that supported Prodi. She was sobbing, a tissue held to her nose. I didn't realize average Italians still took the country's farcical political machinations that seriously. Another lesson learned thanks to life on the road.

I have often thought that the brilliant singer/songwriter Melanie said it best. "Hearing the news," she sang a generation ago, "ain't like being there. Nothing's like feeling it when it's happening to you. Nothing is real unless it's happening to you."

I have found that business travel, even when it's awful, is a wonderful antidote to hearing the news.

I'm a kid from Brooklyn and had never been more than 250 miles from my house until I became a business traveler. I have now seen the Eternal Flame of the 1956 revolt in front of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest. I have walked through the street markets of Seoul and Cracow and Mexico City. Speaking of London, I've read The Forsyte Saga cover to cover about ten times in my life. But business travel allowed me to prowl the streets of London until I found Stanhope Gate, the Bayswater Road, St. John's Wood, Cork Street and all those other places I thought John Galsworthy had invented. What the hell did I know about Mobile, Alabama, or Billings, Montana, before I became a business traveler?

How many kids from Brooklyn, New York, get to see the Brooklyns in Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, Maryland or Michigan? Or Brooklyn, Nova Scotia? Or the suburbs of Sydney and Cape Town named Brooklyn? Business travel has taken me to all those Brooklyns. They are all a long, long way from the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island. And it doesn't matter that those Brooklyns didn't have bagels or Nathan's hot dogs. Each and every one of them had something good to eat--and something I could learn.

I was on a business trip in Tokyo years ago when I somehow ended up playing second base in a pick-up game in a Shinjuku park. I learned more about the Japanese people that day than I had from all the books that I ever read about Japanese culture. I spent three years studying German in college, but I picked up more tips about the language over a few beers in a Hamburg hotel. I like to think I'm a relatively smart guy. Yet I learned a lot about America I should have already known when I got stuck overnight in Cincinnati a couple of summers ago and found myself talking to a guy running a soul-food booth at Chilifest.

This is the one true thing about business travel. Nothing's like being there. Frequent flyers feel it. And, if we take just a minute to look up from the laptop, everything's real because it's happening to us.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.