It is peak holiday time in the northern hemisphere. Holidays are important. They are a time to relax, to be with family, to think about the past and the future. But on holiday you are a consumer, not a participant. You are being served.
You may have a guide book or a travel app, but you are just looking. You can have a conversation with a taxi driver or hotel keeper or waiter, but they have other customers to look after and they need to move on, especially in high season.
Active holidays — hiking, cycling, sailing — are a little better. At least you are taking part in something. But you are still on the outside, looking in.
Business travel is the real deal. You remain a visitor, but you are entering people’s lives. Business trips can be exhausting. I have done back-to-back days with eight meetings in each, as well as a working breakfast and dinner. And business travel takes you away from family.
But on business trips you meet people at work, you see them where they spend the bulk of their days. When you talk to them about their services, their products and their supply chains, you find out about their country: its strengths and inefficiencies, its ambitions and defects.
Walking the factory floor and inspecting the products, you take in what the tourists never see. You begin to understand how the country operates. Years ago, I noticed how full of bustling workers Boeing’s Seattle factories were, compared with Airbus’s assembly plants in Toulouse, where more of the aircraft was put together by robots, with scattered workers monitoring the process on screens.
This was the result of the countries’ respective labour laws. Boeing would announce lay-offs and the re-employment of thousands of workers from one year to the next, depending on the buoyancy of the aircraft market. Because French regulations made it hard to fire workers, companies didn’t hire them in the first place. That made Airbus an innovative user of automation. So unemployment in the US was lower and technological advance in French plane-making higher.
Business travel doesn’t just help you learn about companies and countries. You find out about the people in them, too. Towards the end of a business chat, talk inevitably drifts to the personal: where people were educated, how they got to where they are, how they met their spouses, what their children do.
In a cavernous and noisy restaurant in Shanghai, a local banker told me he was an evangelical Christian. He and his co-religionists met and prayed in people’s homes. How had he come to religion? China’s Cultural Revolution had erased not just the country’s history but its ethical sense, he said. He had found those in Christianity.
On the same trip, before the easing of China’s “one child” policy, I met a Shanghai business executive with four children. How had she managed that? She had had the children in Hong Kong, she said. You could do this if you had the money.
In Belfast, shortly after the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement, I had lunch with the executives of an important local company. The peace that had come to Northern Ireland was fragile. The streets were still tense. The executives talked about their hope that the laying down of arms would last, that business would grow, that tourists would come — and their fears that it would all break down. Nearly 20 years later, I remember that conversation as people worry about the return of an Irish hard border in the wake of Brexit.
These aren’t insights you get on holiday, and perhaps you think you wouldn’t go to Belfast, and possibly not Shanghai, on holiday anyway. That would be your loss; they are both fascinating places.
Business travel yields never-forgotten insights. For all the tedium of getting there and getting around, it is a privileged way to see the world. It may not be relaxing, but it is intellectually and culturally invigorating.
Meanwhile, enjoy the summer. It will be back to work before you know it.
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