Smug secrets of 'business' travel

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 August, 2006, 12:00am

Terrorist threats, most recently on flights to and from Britain, are invariably accompanied by television footage of exasperated businessmen complaining of missed meetings and wasted days. But what could be more wasteful than deciding to fly across the world in the first place?

When teleconferencing and then the internet first arrived, we were told by some that business travel might soon become a thing of the past. Yet it hasn't.

One might be excused for thinking that - except for a minority of instances such as an engineer rushing off to fix a hole in a pipeline - most business travel could be replaced with remote communication. This includes trips by executives, government officials or professionals attending meetings or conferences. Arguments about the importance of personal contact and collective discussion are hard to shoot down. But I suspect they are exaggerated, given the speed, informality and spontaneity of electronic communication.

I feel sorry when a man is in a cold sweat at the airport, claiming he absolutely must be on the next flight - because his boss insists on him making a presentation at tomorrow's group strategy meeting in Europe. But my sorrow is not because he may not get there; it is because his boss seems so blind to the technological alternatives.

Yet, on second thought, the boss may be well aware of the alternatives. The key point is that he has a vested interest in not admitting it. They all want to keep the gravy train running - the nice escape from office routine, the self-importance, the free drinks in the executive lounge and the stacking up of air miles for the next family holiday. None will ever want to challenge colleagues' travel plans, for fear of reciprocation.

Those at the top of organisations are usually the worst indulgers, which makes them doubly reluctant, not to say embarrassed, to really slash the travel budget lower down. Yet, taking two days out of the office to attend one meeting that might last only a couple of hours is seldom a productive use of time.

I plead guilty myself, having notched up scores of trips to some 40 countries during my working life. I confess that probably about half were, to put it kindly, less than fulfilling. And my most lasting and vivid memories are not of the business itself, but of the associated tourist opportunities - from the palaces of St Petersburg, the mosques of Samarkand and the ancient sites of Mexico, to the boat trip on the Rhine, the safari parks of Zimbabwe and the beaches of Phuket.

But I was as reluctant as the next person ever to consider blowing the whistle. When I once dared to suggest to the organiser of an exotically located conference that it had been unproductive, he told me very nicely that other delegates had seemed very happy and many of them came year after year. That, in his view, was achievement enough.

By forcing people to abandon a few planned journeys, the terrorists may have helped them realise that they may not, after all, really need to travel. However, it will never be in the travellers' interests to admit that. A conspiracy of silence ensures that these abuses continue at the expense of shareholders' money or public funds.

Anyone whose job never takes them farther afield than the Tai Po industrial estate may justly feel somewhat aggrieved.

Tony Latter is a senior research fellow of the HK Institute of Economics and Business Strategy