World Traveller? Me too!

Shack Up Inn, Mississippi DeltaI’ve had the chance to travel quite widely on business, so my experiences have gone well beyond what I might have expected as a child growing up in a Lancashire valley.

The recent scenes from Hong Kong took me back to my time in that remarkable city. I began to realise how the hotels I’ve stayed in around the world – with pleasure or more reluctantly – have changed my thinking about business, and given me insight that helps me lead a happier life. 

My last trlp to Hong Kong was nearly ten years ago. In a previous role as a product-centric Brand Manager, I often travelled between our offices in Chicago, New York, Manchester and Hong Kong and to the head offices of some of the major British retailers. This was a $1bn business and there were strict corporate travel guidelines, which I found reason to question now and again.

We always flew business class on KLM. In Hong Kong, we would be met by an antique Rolls Royce, rumoured to have appeared in a James Bond film. The driver would greet us with cool face flannels and chilled water, then we’d be whisked off to The Peninsula, one of the most marvelous hotels in the world.

Their customer service gave every guest that cared-for feeling: I always felt completely at home there. Breakfast, especially the mouth-watering fruit platter, was superb, if you had time for the full experience. I noticed that a few guests left jars of their favourite condiments in the safekeeping of their waiter from trip to trip, who would bring out their ‘essential’ home comfort without needing a prompt.

It was only fair that my company extracted its pound of flesh, expecting us to leap straight into a full day of meetings, which we valiantly did. I remember standing, jetlagged, in an office of a manufacturer on my first afternoon in Hong Kong, looking at a shelf of alarm clocks, trying to disguise the fact that the ground felt like it was moving – swimming – beneath my feet. Very weird.

I loved The Peninsula, of course I did, but could not understand why we were based there in what appeared to be small, luxury suites. I was told that we had a ‘good company rate’, then – after accidentally seeing the bill one time and asking again – that the conspicuous excess was designed to reassure vendors that we were important people, to be taken seriously.

In England, just a few weeks later, I arrived at a place I’d been booked in to by the same company, somewhere on the M1 motorway. The room was on the ground floor, down a shabby, unlit corridor that was – as I remember it – completely open on one side, with no obvious security.

I pushed open the flimsy door and took in my home for the night at a glance, noting the torn, grubby curtains drooping over the rusting windows & radiator. There were no little extras – not even an internet connection or phone line. It was an unwelcoming place and I was glad to be just passing through. I try to look on the bright side: I enjoyed the view – a field full of wild rabbits grazing in the dusk. As a sole female traveler I felt slightly daunted, but set off to see if I could find a fresh-looking packet sandwich in the nearby service station.

The contrast with The Peninsula was very striking and the irony wasn’t lost on me. Looking back, I’m very thankful to have experienced both hotels in such quick succession, strange though that might seem.

For these days, I’m a phlegmatic business traveler with a broad range of tolerances, who just wants to get safely, on schedule, to my destination. Luxury, style or lack of luxury makes no real difference to me. I’ve learned the art of travelling with as much good humour as possible, despite any challenges: to simply go with the flow.

And more recently, I’ve jumped over my suitcase – the only way to get out of my Tokyo bedroom – with equanimity when there was nowhere else to put it or its contents in the tiny hotel room, and thanked my lucky stars to be working with a company that had wiser priorities than mere ostentation.

I don’t expect a company to pay three or four times the amount to fly me business class from New York to Atlanta so that I can be offered a free banana and all the alcohol I can reasonably – or unreasonably – drink. And I’m not convinced that a company should spend considerably more on a direct flight if a connection can get me where I’m going, the same day, in time for what I need to do.

I’m perhaps fortunate that I don’t feel the need to book a wildly expensive hotel to impress someone else: I’ll convince people I meet that they’d enjoy working with me, and that we’d mutually benefit from the experience, on my own merits, thank you very much!

I can see every reason in the world to keep unnecessary business costs down, no matter whether your business is making fantastic profits, or frankly struggling to get by at the moment. When it’s our own, hard-earned money, we can spend it how we choose, on wild luxuries or basic, value for money essentials. But when we’re spending a company’s money, we ought to respect that, and be reasonable.

It sounds like the most basic common sense. Luckily I’m not alone in feeling this way, but I have seen a surprisingly wide variation in the expectations of people I’ve met or worked alongside. It’s too easy for business people to get used to luxury and convey the impression that their time and comfort matter much more than anyone else’s. I’m not sure that’s ever true – or that it’s the best way to happiness or self-fulfillment.

When travelling for pleasure, I seek out hotels in artistic or old districts of wherever I’m visiting. Quirky, characterful places I’ll remember, that help me get more from the experience.

You see, for all the travelling I’ve done, I’m home loving at heart. I know it’s not the ‘right’ thing to admit, but I’m often more interested in the destination than the journey and for me, there’s always a deep pleasure in returning home.

I want the hotels I visit for fun to be warm and welcoming – even witty, with a unique style you won’t find elsewhere: to provide some sort of home from home while I’m there, even though they’re usually nothing like my own. I find them from reviews, recommendations of friends or simply return to places I’ve enjoyed in the past. I hope one day to return to The Peninsula in Hong Kong as it sets a high benchmark I judge all other hotels against. And I’d love to see the sea eagles again, soaring over the bay.

Of course we don’t need to spend a fortune to find welcoming hotels that will make our journeys happy and memorable. Whether it’s been the Shack Up Inn, Mississippi, with its unique form of Delta chic (pictured above), The College Club of Boston, in Boston’s Back Bay, the Portmeirion Village Cottages in Wales, or hotels in Zurich, Bra – not a typo! – in Italy, Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo or Osaka, or a travelling home like the riverboat The American Queen, each of my temporary recent homes has given me welcome insight into life somewhere other than my Northern England valley.

And I’ve found the old wisdom is true: travel broadens the mind, providing we greet each new experience with an open heart.

Are you a home-loving traveler too, or a happy wanderer?

It’s been sad to see demonstrators on the streets of Hong Kong. I remember this engaging city and my ex-colleagues with gratitude and affection, and hope it peacefully achieves the democracy these thoughtful people deserve.