The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
Us. Explained.
June 1, 2006 -- Just to be safe, I checked my E-mail about noon on Memorial Day. What did I find? A half-dozen messages from desperate business travelers needing help with last-minute itineraries.

One wanted a reasonably priced seat to Brussels this week since his client called a meeting with no notice. Another wondered if I knew a good hotel in Cincinnati because she had to be there yesterday. Someone was looking for a good walk-up transcon fare on Tuesday. Another traveler needed a visa pronto. There was a car-rental issue and another flyer was desperate for details on WiFi at Atlanta/Hartsfield.

What an odd life we lead. Most of America on Memorial Day was firing up the grill, taking the kids to a parade or heading off to the beach. Business travelers? Too many of us were trapped at our computers planning still another road trip on short notice.

No one who isn't a business traveler seems to understand that. They see what laughingly passes as our "lifestyle" and focus on all the wrong things. We see drudgery. But business-travel wannabes, travel-industry marketing wizards and media types who speak to us, at us and past us see glamour and excitement, fancy hotels and first-class upgrades and a trail of perks and privileges.

So to help bridge the comprehension gap, here is Us, Explained. Print out a copy and hand it to the next person who tells you how "lucky" you are to be headed out on your next six-segment, four-city, three-day marathon.

When you wake up in the morning and stare into the mirror in your hotel room, you see a businessperson who happens to be working away from the office today. Your needs and goals and motivation are no different than yesterday, when you happened to be working at your desk. But no one else gets it. They think that stepping onto an airplane or checking into a hotel room magically transforms you into a "traveler," a mythic beast who roams the globe in search of diversion, enlightenment and pleasure. You're a stranger in a strange land trying to get your work done, but the whole world treats you as if you're a globe-trotting sybarite on holiday.

Business travel is so expensive that only the best, brightest and most important corporate citizens are now permitted to go on the road. That means we are people of power and influence in our firms. We give directions or formulate strategies and expect people in our company to do what we ask them to do. We rarely hear the word "no" in our office. But then we go on the road and the answer is always "no." "No," you can't upgrade to first class, or "No," your reservation isn't in the computer, or "No," we don't have your rental car. Worse, the people who tell us "no" on the road are generally overworked, underpaid clerks. They would never, ever say "no" to their bosses. But we are fair game. That's why we are always frustrated and cranky. Somebody on the road just told us "no"--and we never saw it coming.

Business travelers don't get to be people of power and influence without being good at what they do. We fight and win our battles in the dog-eat-dog, only-the-strong-survive, Darwinian world of free enterprise. We grow, learn and conquer in the free and competitive marketplace of ideas, products and services. On the other hand, the airline industry has been deregulated for fewer than 30 years. Airline executives and airline corporate cultures aren't even a generation removed from the cost-plus, quasi-utility environment of their past. And when they get into trouble, there always seems to be a politician in their back pocket with a tax break or a bailout. Every time we walk onto an airplane, we look at how things are run and we know we can manage better, market better, sell better, plan better and satisfy customers better than the arrogant, hot-house flowers who run the airlines. We're tougher and smarter than most top airline managers and their incompetence makes us angry. We want to work with profitable vendors that give good service. Instead, we have airlines that lose billions, abuse their line employees and treat us like trash. And then they have the unmitigated gall to tell us their problems are all our fault.

It may be a mixed metaphor, but it's true: The airlines drive the bus. They lead--and we're forced to follow. They control our destinies as well as our destinations. We may spend more time (and money) in hotels and rented cars, but our lives on the road are dominated by our relationship with the airlines. Maybe it's because we spend all that time in a metal tube with our lives literally in their hands. Whatever the reason, what the airlines do affects our mental, business and physical equilibrium more than anything that the hotel or car-rental industries do.

OUR 80/20 RULE
The rest of the world lumps all business travelers into one group. We know better. The 80 percent of us whose business travels are primarily domestic know that we lead totally different lives from the 20 percent of us who are international business travelers. Domestic business travelers and international business travelers have nothing in common except that we know the rest of the world doesn't understand the differences between us.

The road to our hearts, minds and wallets is not paved with frequent flyer miles or frequent stay points. Frequent travelers have all the miles and points they need--and far more free trips than we can ever claim. We earn so many miles for expenditures on the core business-travel products (transportation, lodging, credit cards and telecommunications), we're not going to buy a couch or a magazine because we get some more miles. Gamers may relish the opportunity to refinance their mortgages or fly a "mileage run" or switch gas stations for miles, but real business travelers are too busy for those games. What we want from the frequent travel programs is perks: the recognition that we are loyal, profitable customers; the upgrades and preferred treatment; a slightly more comfortable life while we do business on the road; and a simple "thank you" for emptying our wallets into their cash registers.

Even 20 years ago our life on the road, despite the pitfalls, was a refuge from the craziness of our life in the office and our life on the home front. We hit the road and we left everything behind. More importantly, we controlled the access. We called in--to the office or back home--when and where we felt it was appropriate. No more. With mobile phones, PDAs and laptops, it's unacceptable to be out of touch. Ever. For even a minute. The result? We're not only managing our road trip, we're dealing with all the stuff at the office and at home that we once left behind. There's no space anymore. No time anymore. No escape anymore. And we're about to implode because no one can manage all that all of the time.

I wrote this in 1997 and, a decade later, I see it quoted all over the place by all sorts of people: Life on the road stinks. And it gets worse, day by day, week by week, year by year. But truth, especially a stark one, tends to warp our perspective. As miserable as our lives on the road are, we sometimes forget that our problems are nothing compared to the burdens being borne by others on this troubled planet. We got a right to sing the blues. Just not as loudly as we sometimes do.

This column is Copyright 2006 by Joe Brancatelli. is Copyright 2001-2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. 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.