Friday Feb 06, 2009

The Romance of International Business Travel

For anyone who still lives under the illusion that international business travel is somehow cool, fun or romantic then read on. For those that have already realised this then you may want to skip to the last paragraph for some amusement. Wind back to Sunday evening. I was due to travel to Bangkok and duly arrived at Heathrow airport T4 just after 7pm for a 9.30pm flight. The terminal itself is going through major reconstruction work and on top of that seemed to be packed to capacity, certainly everywhere I went to try and get something to eat there were long queues and no free tables. As I was later to find out the flight was also packed to capacity. Shortly before we started to board at 9pm the forecast snow arrived in force. Staring out of the terminal building at the blizzard outside my heart fell knowing that the chance of the plane leaving on time had just fallen to zero, the same as the outside temperature. Heathrow is not exactly geared up for snow. It is something that happens every few years (rather than multiple times per year) and so the costs of not dealing with the snow properly are far less than the investments needed to properly equip for the snow and with relentless pressure from passengers for cheap flights what are they supposed to do. Anyway we duly boarded at around 9pm and once fully loaded the pilot announced that there would be a short delay of approximately 30 minutes while we waited for the de-icing rig to arrive. Some 2 or 3 hours later the de-icing rig arrived and started work only to run our of fluid part way through the job and had to return to base. One or two hours later it returned to start again once more to disappear part way through the job. A short while after this the pilot announced that the snow ploughs were unable to keep the runways open and that Heathrow was now officially shut and so we would off loaded from the plane. The only problem was that T4, that we were currently connected to, was now shut and unmanned so we would need to be taken by bus to T5. Around 3pm we were taken to T5 but not the arrivals area but one of the outlying terminal buildings requiring us then to get the shuttle train to arrivals. At immigration was total chaos with everyone clamouring to find out what was going on with wave after wave of people being off loaded into the hall and only 3 BA staff behind a small desk. Finally one BA staff member took the initiative and stood on a chair and called for quite. She said that all flights would be postponed by 24 hours and that no bags would be unloaded. We were to return to the airport 3 hours before our scheduled time but on Monday night rather than Sunday night. By now the queue at passport control was already 4 times longer than when I had arrived in immigration and the hall was full of people fighting to get to the BA desk. I decided to cut my losses and run before this lot moved o the Taxi rank. Outside after a short wait I managed to get a Taxi home and arrived back around 5am.  Knowing that I had already missed a nights sleep and that I would be unlikely to get any sleep for a second night (sat for 11+ hours in economy) I devised a cunning plan. If I stayed awake for another few hours and then slept most of the day I would minimise my jet lag when I arrived in Bangkok. So I sent a few emails to re-arrange meetings and to get my revised travel plans confirmed, had a couple of G+Ts and checked ot see if the kids school was shut or not (it was) before diving into my bed. Around 2pm I was woken by a call from my travel admin to tell me that while BA had confirmed earlier in the day the message that I had received at the airport they were now saying that the flight would not be leaving Monday evening and they were offering me a place on a flight for Friday evening. Considering that my meetings were booked for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this was a little pointless so I decided to cut my losses and cancel the trip. As an regular traveller will tell you the worst parts of any trip are the airport (check in, security and hanging about), the flight (sitting for hours in economy discomfort with nothing to do) and the jet lag and the upside only happens once you get there. I had managed to experience the airport, 6+ hours sat in economy and given my self jet lag and travelled precisely nowhere!

So what about my luggage you ask? Well this is where the fun really starts. On tuesday I thought I had better contact the airport to try and retrieve my suitcase. A very helpful gentleman told me that y suitcase was defintely in the airport (somewhere) and that they BA would deliver it back to me but to be patient because their systems were a little overloaded. He duely gave me tracking number and a website to check for progress on the return of my bag. Several times on the tuesday I checked the website to be told they they were still attempting to locate exactly where my bag was. On wednesday I checked and it told me that my bag was awaiting return to Heathrow due to arrive on the Thirsday morning on the BA 10. For those not in the know the BA 10 is the flight from Sidney to London Heathrow via \*\*\*\*\*\*\*\* Bangkok \*\*\*\*\*\*\*\*\*. Clearly while I had been unable to make it to Bangkok my bag had sucessfully completed the journey on tuesday evening without me! On thursday afternoon a courier arrived at my house with my bag covered in baggage routing tags from Bangkok airport but otherwise unharmed. Clearly my bag has now decided that it has enough international travel experience to undertake these trips on it's own so I have applied for it's own passport and air miles account and will be teaching it about Sun technology and products so that it can take over completely from me and I will be able to relax at home without having to suffer the trauma of international travel.

Sunday Feb 10, 2008

No planes but trains and automobiles

Many people live under the impression that to travel for business is some how romantic and pleasurable. These are typically people who rarely travel and when they do it is for vacation. The times when it was romantic to travel (for business or pleasure) are long passed as I hope this example will show.

 I recently travelled to Paris with a couple of other people to talk to a group of developers about the latest and greatest technology from Sun. We left mid afternoon from St. Pancras on the EuroStar (I have long since stopped flying to Paris due to the delays, cancellations and general discomfort). Our plan was to arrive in Paris in time to check into the hotel and have some dinner. When we arrived at the hotel and tried to check in we were greeted  by the concierge who explained that the hotel was over booked (due to a large party extending their stay) and that they were in the process of transferring us to another hotel near by. Thankfully the guys that I was with were pretty chilled and so when he offered a free drink at the bar while we waited for arrangements to be made they agreed immediately. A short while later we were loaded into a taxi courtesy of the hotel to head for our new hotel. At this point the taxi driver started demanding that we direct him to where we wanted to go. We had no idea. We had been told by the first hotel that they would arrnage and pay for the taxi and tell him where to go. The taxi driver started to get very upset when we told him that we had no idea. Luckily we had the phone number of the first hotel and so a quick call to them cleared up the confusion and tald the taxi driver that he was going in the wrong direction which got him more upset. Then we remebered that we had another colleague due in on a much later train. A quick call back to the hotel to find out if he was also going to be moved, yes, and a quick call and SMS to give him details of the change and all was back on track - we thought.

 The following morning we were up and into a taxi heading for the clients site. We were complaining bitterly at the incompetance of our travel agent who appeared to have booked us in a hotel on the opposite side of Paris from the client's site. After an hour in a taxi we arrived at the street name that we had been given but there was no sign of the clients building. A quick couple of phone calls and we managed to find out that the street name that we had was correct but the client was based in a suburb of Paris. A quick look at google maps and we reolised that this was back across town near to our hotel. The travel agents logic now becoming clearer ;-). So back in a taxi and we finally arrived at the clients site about 1 hour late. On leaving the clients site we decided to hail a taxi in the street. After 45 minutes of trying we have up and went into a bar to plan the next steps. After a beer I managed to get the courage and confidence in my French (which is very poor) to go and ask the bar man to call us a taxi. Now the comedy started. The bar did not have a telephone but the bar man did have the number of a taxi company. No problem we all had GSM mobiles. Ah but my French is weak face to face over a poor GSM connection it was never going to work. At this point one of the locals in the bar took pity on us and offered to help. I explained that we needed a taxi to take 4 people or 2 taxis and where our hotel was and he arranged the cab. There was a brief argument between him and the taxi firm because they were not happy to take a booking from a mobile phone and wanted us to call from a fixed line. He explained that there was no fixed line in the place and that we were foreigners who were lost and needed a taxi and they then agreed to take the booking. That evening after a 2 mile walk, due to misunderstanding the directs from the hotel, we found a very pleasant restaurant and enjoyed an excellent meal. Things were looking up.

The following morning we checked out of the hotel and asked them to arrange a taxi to take us back to the client. We told that they could not because the taxi drivers were on strike today. Dam. What now. A quick look at a public transport map revealed that there was a tram service that went nearly door to door. If only we had known that the night before. Our only minor problem was that the ticket machines had been vandalised so we had to board the tram without a ticket but sincer no ticket inspector arrived this was a non issue. Once we came to leave the client we went back to the tram station and decided to take the tram one stop and then change to the RER or the metro. We were able to purchase tickets this time on the platform and off we went. I was pleased to see that the tram ticket also covered us for the RER and the Metro. I validated my ticket on the tram but in the crush did not realise that the other 3 had not. When we tried to enter the RER we then ran into ptoblems. The barriers did not open properly for me but I was able to barge my way through as did one of my collegues. The other 2 could not. We decided that this was because they had not validated their tickets so they went back to validate their tickets. When they finally returned their tickets still did not work but by now we were running out of time so they climbed over the barrier and off we went. We had valid tickets - or so we thought - so what could we be doing wrong. When we came to change trains on teh RER we were now at the peak rush hour. The platform was about 6 people deep when we arrived and it was 15 minutes before a train arrived. We had to make this train so we put the slimmer guy in front and two ex rugby forwards drove then hard at the open train doors. We were on. At the Gare Du Nord when we came to leave three of us managed ot exit no problem but one guy was stuck behind the barriers. This time it was 10ft high sliding glass doors so there was no way of climbing over. Finally we through him one of our tickets and he came out OK. At this point we reolised that he had never validated his ticket on entering the system. We made it to the EuroStar with about 10 minutes to spare. On route we further examined our subway tickets and the guide map we had been given at the hotel and reolised our error. The tickets that we had were valid for the RER  but only within the limits of Paris (not the suburbs). We had boarded the RER at La Defense which is a suburb and so our tickets were not valid. Good job we did not encounter any ticket inspectors. The EuroStar gave us a chance to relax and reflect on the excitement of our trip.

Unfortunately for me it was not over yet. We all parted company at St. Pancras and headed off in our own directions. I arrived at Paddington at around 9pm and which I bought my ticket mused on the fact that the station was rather busy for this time of night. Then a glance up at the board for the next traing to Reading and what did I see - Cancelled, Delayed, Delayed, Delayed, Cancelled, Delayed, Delayed. Then I began to notice that none of the trains platforms where warming up their engines and that the lack of the usual roar of deisel engines ment that you could hear the hum of voices from the crowd on the concourse. Shartly afterwards there was an announcement explaining that the line was closed near Slough due to a fatality on the line and so no trains were going into or out of the station at the moment except those going to Heathrow. So 3 choices. Sit it out, try going down to Waterloo and ramming onto the milk train from Waterloo to Reading or take the train to Heathrow and the coach on from there. I opted for the former and went and curled up in the vestibule of a 1st class carraige of a 125 safe in the knowledge that it would leave at some time and that it's first stop would be Reading. Eventually I made it to Reading but too late for a connection onwards so I went with everyone else to join the long queue and 45 minute wait for a taxi.

When I finally got home very late I was able to reflect on the joys, pleasure and romance of modern travel and wonder if it might be time for a change in career.

Tuesday Nov 13, 2007


I have recently returned from a trip to Bangkok. Despite the rather painful journey, over 12 hours each way both ways as an overnight flight (in economy) and loosing a weekend on each end of a week, I always enjoy the time that I spend there. Why? Well apart from the fantastic food (I love Thai food) and the weather (there is nothing better than leaving a cold damp London to arrive in temperatures that seem to warm you to the very core) it is because of the people. The Thai people seem to always be so polite, so friendly, so cheerful, colourful and always have a positive outlook on life. This is further enhanced by the fact that the development team that I work with in Bangkok have an average age of 27 and so seem to have limitless enthusiasm and energy with a "anything is possible" attitude. It takes me back to the early part of my career when I worked at INMOS, a development team with an average age of 27 who were going to take on Silicon Valley from Bristol in the UK and win!

This got me thinking about a course that did a few years ago entitled "Managing Across Cultures". As with many of these soft skills courses we given a number of tools to help our understanding and in common with many of these tools they need to be used with caution and in the right context (and not at the exclusion of other techniques including common sense - be warned) however one of the tools on this course can provide some interesting insights and some fun. The particular tool in question was to help answer the question - "How does an individual from another cultural background view me and the culture from which I come from?". You start by listing the way you view their culture and national traits. This needs to be expressed in a positive way - eg. The Italians are very relaxed about time keeping rather than Italians are bad time keepers. Having written your list of cultural and national traits as seen from your viewpoint you now take all the statements and reverse them to give a description of how their culture views yours, again try to keep away from negative statements - eg. From an Italian perspective precise time keeping is important to the English.

So how do the Thai's view me - Oh No - I am rude, unhelpful, miserable, grey with a pessimistic view on the world. I do hope this tool is broken!!! ;-)

Thursday Jul 26, 2007

Web 2.0, the Media and Floods

Last week I was watching Jonathan Schwartz speaking at a conference of CEOs from the media industry. Based on the feedback from the audience his comments on where he felt the media industry was going seemed pretty controversial.

 For anyone that has been following the UK news in the last week will be aware of the wide spread flooding that there has been in the UK since the major storms last friday. Although I live between three of the rivers that have flooded - The Pang, The Thames, The Bourne and The Kennet, thankfully, my own home has been unaffected, however in order to move around locally it has been important to keep up to date with the latest status of the flooding.

I would like to add at this point that my heart goes out to those people who have been affected by flooding. To have your home and personal possessions completely ruined as well as having to cope for several days without heat, power and fresh running water is something that I would not wish upon my worst enemy.  

It has been interesting to observe how much all of the media - TV, Radio, Print and Internet - has been making use of content provided by ordinary people who have been affected. This has included photographs, videos, interviews and update information. This I think has been partly due to the fact that the torrential rain on Friday, even in those areas not affected ultimately by the flooding, cause transport chaos that made all forms of travel close to impossible. This in turn meant the the news agencies were hampered in getting their people "on the ground". This is highlighted by the inability of the environment agency to get the flood defences to Upton on Severn in time because they were held up in a traffic jam. All of this being said these factors have accelerated a trend rather than caused the change.

Imagine my joy though when I happened along the following mashup using google maps integrated with data from the environment agency, news reports, consumer reports, consumer photos and videos to provide a complete picture of the up to date state of affairs which you can navigate yourself to your personal areas of interest. To anyone that doubted the is a change under way in the way news content is generated this must surely be the final proof.





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