City hotels during the work week are lonely places. Swarming with people having hushed conversations, ear buds in, crumpled suits and road weary eyes. Sad martinis at the lobby bar, half-finished coffee and beer left in the hallway. I stay in a lot of places like this, these megaliths of commerce and compulsory travel. I’ve walked the anonymous and silent halls, tried to find comfort in the strange beds, rated the quality of the experience by the warmth and strength of the shower.
I’m in Atlanta, though by the time you read this I will be home. I’m here for work. I’m always somewhere for work. I’m staying at the Hyatt (well, one of the Hyatts, but I won’t tell you which one). There’s a conference going on. Lots of people walking around with name badges in suits and comfortable shoes. Must be a convention center gig – lots of booths and the same conversations happening over and over again across three long Groundhog’s Days. The young people look lost and excited to be away from the office. The road warriors look unimpressed.
I’m not here for the conference. I’m here for some meetings across town. I stand in the elevator, hoping no one will get on, trying to maintain a line of sight to the floor if I do. There will be a dinner. It will be delicious and awkward. It will be expensive, but someone else is picking up the tab. I will enjoy it for a while but wish that it ends long before it does. I just want to be home. I just want to be with my kids and my wife. I just want to take my dog for a walk.
There have been trips I have loved – Tokyo, Singapore and Malaysia, Romania, every time I’m in London, San Francisco or Toronto. There are places I have been excited to see – New York for the first time – that have lost their luster – New York the next 17 times, Atlanta, Minneapolis.
I’ve had some incredible experiences traveling the world for work. But these are few and far between. Mostly there are just these hotels, which were probably fancy or interesting when they were first built in the earlier days of ubiquitous jet business travel. There are airports, which almost always take a piece of your soul. There are drug stores for Diet Coke and Advil, there are breakfast buffets that are always a mistake, there are long, lonely hours spent staring at the ceiling or roaming the halls, which always smell a little bit off. There’s the click of the door next to yours and the momentary stun of the maid knocking while you’re still packing up. There are lines at the check-in, lines at the cab stand, lines on the platform for the train to take you to the airport.
I don’t complain. I get to go, to see places and meet people. I get to experience things outside my every day life. But it’s not glamorous or sparkly. After a while, it doesn’t feel like an adventure. If you’re lucky something will happen – a rough flight, a strange encounter on the street, an unusual food you’ve never had before – that will give you something to talk about. But mostly it is a feeling of being anonymous, of being a stranger in a place not all that different than where you come from, but just different enough to feel unsettling. Business travel is about endurance, not thrill; it is about a run on the treadmill in the basement gym and strange eye contact with the guy pumping iron. It’s about wondering if you’re going the right way or if you’ll be on time, if you have everything you need and whether or not your flight will get you home in time to tuck the kids into bed.
Business travel- the every day, ordinary kind – isn’t what you thought it would be, but is usually the right thing to do — for your company, your career, your family. You make the best of it. You find a spot you like to visit (mine are the Best Made Co. store in Tribeca, the walking trail behind the Benihana near SFO, the used book store in the Raleigh-Durham airport) and you make them home bases, even for a short time. You meet people (Emmitt in Atlanta, Harriet in NYC, Shawn is San Francisco) you try to connect with every time you’re in town. You set a little agenda for something new (a stroll through the Natural History Museum in NYC, a trip down to Half Moon Bay, a walk through Midtown) to try to keep yourself sane. And you try to take an earlier flight to surprise your kids. You set aside an hour to read that book you’ve been meaning to, Skype your wife, call your parents. You try to find a routine to make the ordinary productive.
Sometimes you want to go. Other times, most times, you have to. The point is to recognize these trips for what they are and make the most of it. Your family misses you almost as much as you miss them. Your company appreciates it. Your mind recognizes that you are still pretty lucky.
After all, it beats digging ditches.