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Failure to communicate creates difficulties overseas
First comes the checklist: passport, visa, tickets, cell phone, computer, personal digital assistant, credit cards, currency, electric plugs, modem connectors.
OK. Ready for takeoff. All set for that business trip across the seas, beyond the borders, out where American commercial travelers have been learning to cope with a professional world that demands the instantaneous.
No business traveler wants to face a failure to communicate, especially in another country. Eve Ray, who heads up the pulp sales marketing team at Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. in Chicago, has mastered most of the details in her 23 years of calling on clients in other lands. Agents and brokers in the cities she visits deal with most of the red tape, such as visas and conference schedules. Her hotels clutch at least four stars. Few things can trip her up.
But sometimes those agents can't meet her at the airport. Sometimes she has to confirm an appointment, or cancel out. Sometimes her luggage lands in another country.
That's when the meltdown begins.
"I just cannot seem to comprehend why, in this 21st century, I cannot pick up my cell phone and go overseas and have it work," Ray says.
"It's frustrating, really frustrating, just trying to figure out how to use a pay phone in an airport or a train station. In Europe, taxis and the metro systems are good. It just seems I have trouble with anything you have to dial.
"And last spring, I had the luxury of being in Europe for 12 days without a change of clothes. My luggage finally arrived back at my house three days after I got home." A tight schedule of meetings and flights to several cities prevented Ray from shopping for a new wardrobe. And, of course, most stores in Europe are closed Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday.
It bothered her that airline and airport personnel didn't empathize. "My peeve is the lack of caring or understanding the frustration level of someone who's in Europe for 12 days, scheduled to meet with senior executives, and all I had on were the clothes I wore on the plane."
Like the "Accidental Tourist" in Anne Tyler's novel, business troops visiting from the United States tend to seek out the familiar and hope their contacts overseas will understand American ways enough so they can seal the deal.
"I tend to stay in the bigger chain hotels that are used to catering to business," admits Steve Fradkin of Chicago-based Northern Trust Bank. Fradkin, 39, is the senior vice president responsible for the bank's international group. "In those kinds of hotels," he says, "you know what to expect. They're clean and they have the latest technology."
Fradkin gets around. "We have clients in 37 countries," he says. "I spend lots of time in Europe and Asia and the Middle East. I've got the stamps in my passport and a few headaches to prove it."
By staying in the most modern of the chain hotels with the latest electrical hookups, Fradkin manages to keep in touch with clients and the folks at home. And, of course, he can count on his hotel to provide access to e-mail.
"I can remember a very short time ago that in every city I went to, I would wake up in the morning or come in at night and there would be piles of faxes with all sorts of stuff that the office was connecting on. Now, with the prevalence of e-mail, you've got your laptop and you're ready to go."
Fradkin also likes to prepare for travel abroad by learning a little about the face-to-face encounters he might expect.
"One of the big challenges for people who travel a lot is switching cultures, customs and etiquettes rapidly," he explains.
Recently, Fradkin took some of his normally far-flung managers to a Greek restaurant in Chicago. One of them summoned a waiter by shouting, "Senior!"
"He wasn't being rude," Fradkin insists. "It wasn't that he was of Hispanic descent. He was just in the wrong place thinking the wrong thing. It was one of those global moments."
Trying to prevent such gaffes, Fradkin reads up on the culture of the land he plans to visit. But the surprises keep on coming. "I remember when I first started traveling to Japan, I didn't know that they would be serving green tea at every meeting. That's how things are done. By about the third meeting, you're crossing your legs, politely trying to get through it."
Fradkin learned that in the Middle East, a meeting might be cut short by the call to prayer. "And in some (Persian) Gulf countries, you don't want to get in the elevator with a single woman."
Still, Fradkin knows it would be impossible to learn every little cultural nuance, so he relies on conventional politeness to see him through. "You'll probably be all right if you make an attempt to deal with the language, whether it's a thank-you, an excuse-me, or some kind of apology -- anything to show that you're respecting the country you're in. If you're expecting everything to be done in the American way, sometimes you'll get a little pushback on that."
None of the foreign-business travelers interviewed for this article seemed to have difficulty with the food overseas, but the women have given some thought to the circumstances of dining out.
"If I have to eat alone, in Europe I'll very eagerly go looking for restaurants in any city," says Eve Ray. "Outside of Europe, I probably would stay in the hotel."
Sarah Devaney, an executive with Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, says dining alone bothers her, so she considers the restaurant situation part of her overseas trip preparation.
"If I'm going to a city where I know someone or Edelman has an office, I'll always send out an e-mail in advance of my trip and try to meet people for dinner," she says. "The best way to see a place is to hang out with someone who lives there. And it does make you more inclined to leave your hotel and see something of the area."
A businessperson on the go might find it expedient to dine in a cybercafe. Andrew McAfee, 33, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Business, teaches about technological operations management, and he regularly travels abroad for research and consulting.
"If I can get to the Internet, I can basically get to everything I need," McAfee says. Most of the time, a sophisticated cell phone, a Palm Pilot and a modem to connect the two get him to the e-mail.
"But that's a very low bandwidth and not very suited for surfing the Web," he points out. For that, he might bring along a laptop. "But then you have to figure out what phone numbers to dial when you're moving around the world. And, then, do you have the physical plugs, wires, cords to hook the thing up to the phone in the country you're traveling in? And your modem has to be able to recognize the different dial tones. These are all hassles.
"So, another option is to just find an Internet-connected computer wherever you go, whether that's in a hotel, a cybercafe or a Web bar. These things exist almost everywhere, so you go there, pay by the half-hour or hour, or whatever, and you do your work that way."
That method would win the endorsement of Bill Anthony, Northwestern University's director of study abroad. "For about a year," he says, "I schlepped with me a 10-pound Macintosh laptop. And I bought several hundred dollars' worth of telephone connectors. I used that laptop in Germany, Denmark, Italy, the Soviet Union, Australia, New Zealand and China. But it was a royal pain."
So now, Anthony, 52, scouts out the cybercafes, although he has not yet dared to use the communications method suggested by a chap he met in New Zealand.
"I was in the Auckland airport, a lovely little place," Anthony recalls. "I could find no phone lines that would let me use this fancy little telephone hookup I had brought with me.
"It finally dawned on me that the bar at this little airport was getting incoming telephone calls. I asked the bartender if I could use the phone. He said I could. I plugged the laptop to the phone, going through all kinds of shenanigans to do so. I still couldn't get out.
"Some guy -- clearly a big-business type -- came up and said, 'Oh, you're taking one of those things around with ya.' The guy said, 'I just figure that my office staff knows where to find me. If there's a real emergency, they'll find me. I give them the numbers.'"
Anthony could see the logic in that, and now -- even though he's always on the prowl for an Internet connector -- he leaves the laptop at home.