Recovering From The Holidays & 10 Tips To Ease Business Travel

Getting back into the swing of things after a major holiday break or personal vacation can be a challenge. It’s January 14 already. Two weeks have flown by and I’m already behind writing this article.

It’s not just about getting back to work and getting caught up, though. For International business people, the rest of the world runs on a different schedule — and that means business kept right on moving while you were out. As I was enjoying Christmas and the New Year break here in the United States, many of my colleagues have been sending emails and patiently awaiting my return to the office. My to-do list on January 6, my first day back, was so long I didn’t even know where to begin.

Business Travel And The Chinese New Year

I remember a client’s story about his first trip to China. Bill had been talking with his manufacturing partner about visiting after the New Year’s holiday for some time. Bill always had at least three calls every week with his partner, most often talking with the production floor manager to get updates regarding progress, issues with the design process, or resolve any questions that came up. Bill’s role on these calls was to make decisions. Most often he spoke with Dewei, who ran the design and production operation. When Bill brought up a visit, Dewei was thrilled to know that he would be coming and made it clear Bill would be very welcome. He said he would take care of all the details, so after New Year’s break Bill decided it was high time to see his operation in China. He sent a note to Dewei suggesting a trip near the end of January. Dewei’s reply was enthusiastic, telling Bill it would be a great time to see China because he would be just in time for the Chinese New Year celebration. Dewei promised to give Bill a grand tour and make him feel very much at home.

He’d never been to China before, and didn’t really occur to Bill that Chinese culture would be dramatically different from American culture. Of course he expected the obvious differences: Language, food, and customs. But business was business around the world right?

Bill arrived in China the evening of Tuesday, January 27, 2009. The Chinese New Year varies from year to year, but in 2009 it started on January 26.

Dewei had arranged for a car to pick Bill up at the airport, and true to his word had made sure all the details were in order. His hotel was nicely appointed, and the hotel manager personally greeted him. Bill was looking forward to a productive week touring his factory, looking over designs, and seeing the final preparations as the factory tooled up for production.

His trip was not going to go as planned.

Even if you live and work there, you can never be entirely sure you understand. It is best to assume that you do not. — Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Company

Dewei met Bill on Wednesday afternoon and announced plans to see the city. Bill was eager to see the factory, but Dewei told him it was closed for the New Year celebration. They would absolutely visit it, but there would be no point in seeing it before next Monday since all the employees were taking vacation: It was the Chinese New Year! Nobody would be working that week, and hardly anyone would be coming to the office on Monday either. The Chinese New Year is very much like Christmas and New Year’s combined in the United States. Bill’s visit to China became a cultural tour, spending the first three days and a weekend seeing the city. There was no visit to the factory until the following week, and even then only a skeleton crew showed up, mostly to meet with Bill. His agenda was completely changed, and Bill ended up having two New Year’s holidays that year. Fortunately, he was able to extend his trip and stay an extra week. As things got rolling the week after the holiday, Bill was finally able to get to know his factory.

In the long run, Bill learned a few important lessons, but he also built a strong relationship with his team in China. Spending that extra week over the holiday meant meeting the family and friends of his partner’s team. It meant getting to know everyone a little bit better, and it meant learning some small bit of Chinese culture. All of this built a stronger relationship, and it was time well invested. At the time, of course, Bill was aghast that nobody had told him he shouldn’t come until after the Chinese New Year. Much like in America, everything shuts down for the holiday, and people don’t get any work done for about two weeks. A good rule of thumb if you’re planning on visiting China is to wait at least a couple of weeks after the New Year’s holiday before visiting — and of course, check your calendar to see when it falls! This year, the Chinese New Year is on January 31. That means the first week of February, nobody’s going to be working. For two weeks afterwards, people may be on vacation, or they may be coming back to work and looking at all that email that piled up from their International partners. As they’re catching up, you’ll be waiting patiently to get back to business.

Learn To Be Flexible

Bill’s trip could easily have been a disaster, but fortunately, Bill was an easy going fellow who really cared about his employees and his partner. I’ve met plenty of Americans that are too focused on schedule and would have been absolutely furious to have had their’s interrupted. Planning your International visit is going to take some extra thought and preparation.

For example, why didn’t Dewei tell Bill it was a bad time of year to visit? I’ve written about power distance and communication quite a bit in the past (and will write much more). In this particular situation, it simply wasn’t appropriate for Dewei to correct Bill. That would have been presumptuous and Dewei’s part, and from his point of view, would probably have meant a loss of face for Bill — who is, after all, his American customer and the CEO of the company. When the CEO tells you he’s coming to visit, you say, “Wonderful, we can’t wait for you to arrive!”

10 Tips For International Business Travel

Here are a few more tips that you might not think of when planning your International business trip:

  1. Get an International calendar and be sure to coordinate around foreign holidays. If you don’t know what a holiday is, find out. some might just mean a few people won’t come in to work, but others could call for a two-week long shutdown!
  2. Look into cell phone use a few week’s ahead of time. You may need to rent a tri-band phone, or get a disposable phone on your arrival. It may not be that easy, either. On my last trip to India, it took an entire afternoon to set up an account, largely because of laws intended to limit terrorist access to data and cell networks.
  3. Plan to take more time than you think you will need. Most countries, especially Eastern and collectivist cultures, will move at a different pace. You’ll want to take time to build relationships, get to know people, and accommodate a different pace at the office. You can’t have the mentality that it’s a quick “get in and out” visit.
  4. Find out if your credit card will work while abroad, and take plenty of cash (in a well protected place). Depending on where you visit, credit cards may not be widely accepted. Also, it’s probably worth upgrading to that Platinum American Express or getting a Capital One business card, just to save the 2.7% foreign currency conversion rates (there are no conversion fees on either card).
  5. While it may seem like a lot of trouble to be interviewed by Homeland Security, getting a Global Entry pass really makes travel go more smoothly in most International airports.
  6. Consider sending your bags ahead, and confirming their arrival at the hotel before you leave. This can save you a huge headache, and makes the trip a little bit less stressful.
  7. Rely on your International partner to help you find good accommodations, set up your travel itinerary, and provide you with a car, but also be sure to explain what you are looking for. “Good” accommodations in one country may not be what you’re expecting! Knowing that you will be taken care of while visiting takes a lot off your mind.
  8. Don’t forget about insurance. Check with your medical coverage to see if they provide services and coverage where you’re going. If not, look into a short term travelers medical policy from a provider such as HTH Travel Insurance, Medex International, or Worldwide Assistance. Also check the CDC site before you go, and make sure you have appropriate medication and shots (such as anti-malaria tablets when visiting Asia, and remember most inoculations are taken 3 weeks before travel).
  9. Plan a day after arrival to recover from jet lag, and don’t forget it happens coming home too. You won’t do anyone any good if you keep falling asleep at the office.
  10. In my last post on travel and International relationships, I mentioned the work week. Be sure you anticipate the local work schedule. It might not be Monday through Friday!

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year!

Surviving The Asian Dinner Ritual

Westerners frequently miss the importance of the Asian dinner ritual. In fact, some Western business cultures, like the United States, keep personal relationships and business relationships so completely separate that the idea of one influencing the other is taboo. In Asia, the lines between business and personal relationships are very different. Misunderstanding this important cultural shift can lead to unrecoverable missteps.

Tips To Survive The Asian Dinner Ritual

Most Asian cultures place tremendous importance on building a strong relationship before entering into business together – or even before discussing business. Relationship building is an important precursor to developing a business relationship, and one of the best ways Asian business people get to know each other is over dinner and drinks.

Unlike in the West, the dinner ritual is not a celebration of a “done deal.” It’s part of the relationship-building in which Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian cultures invest so much importance. This is an opportunity to get to know your hosts, and vice-versa, but it’s definitely not about talking business. Expect to discuss everything except business, from the weather, to your family, to kids and hobbies. If your partners love American baseball or golf, the conversation will definitely go there. Women will often find themselves being faced with topics that are inappropriate in countries such as the United States, like what their plans for raising children are. The more open, honest, and genuine you are, the better to cement trust. This is where personal relationships are built, and business in Asia doesn’t happen without a strong relationship as a foundation.

Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer
Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer

Most of my clients ask about gifts. They are appropriate, usually after signing a business deal or finishing a tough negotiation or project together. As your relationship grows, it’s likely the gift giving will become more expensive. Start with rice wine (bai jiu), a good red wine (from your home region, if you live in a wine producing state), or expensive Chinese or U.S. brand cigarettes (most Chinese professionals drink and smoke). Remember the importance of “face.” If no one else brings a gift, give yours to the host privately so that you don’t embarrass the other dinner guests.

Heavy drinking is very common, but don’t overdo it. I recall one situation where an American employee got a little bit too drunk, and ended up being too straight-forward in his opinions about the project the team was working on. What he said was not complimentary to the team, and the next day I received a formal request to remove him from the project. While dinner parties can be a lot of fun, remember you are still building a relationship. Your host will be finding out who you really are, and decisions about your future business relationship will be based on the personal connection made, or not made. Let your host lead the toasts, and don’t think you’re in a drinking competition. Saying “I’ve had enough” helps your host gain face.

When it comes time to pay the bill, if you’ve been invited your host will pay. Your thanks will be welcome and appreciated. If you do feel the urge to pay, let your host know well ahead of time and avoid fighting over it at the table.

Also, if you have any special dietary requirements, let your host’s assistant know ahead of time. Your host will be very happy to accommodate your requirements, but keep in mind that events are usually planned days in advance, and you may be meeting new faces at dinner. Be considerate, and allow plenty of time to prepare.

Speaking of new faces, be sure to bring plenty of business cards. Exchange of business cards is an important ritual throughout Asia, and not having cards can be construed as disrespectful. When receiving or presenting a card, do it with two hands, thumb and forefinger grasping the corners of the card, and orient the card toward the person receiving it. A bow will often accompany receipt of a card, and you should always take time to read the card. This demonstrates respect for the person presenting it, and gives you the opportunity to find out who at the table is due the most respect.

Above all, be genuine and forthcoming, and get to know your host. By building a strong personal bond, you can look forward to a long and successful business relationship.