Preparing for international travel is unlike planning a business trip within one's own country. While you're usually fussing over details such as your flight itinerary, what to pack and scheduling meetings for a typical business trip, international travel may also require research for immersion into a culture with proper etiquette and protocols associated with the host country. With the recent political disorder in countries like Libya and natural disasters in Japan, travel overseas also requires certain safeguards to protect yourself during a time of crisis, says Jason Kaufman, senior manager, service innovation, MacNair Travel Management/American Express, in Alexandria, Virginia.
There are some basic guidelines such as preparing proper documents two or three months before your departure, especially if visas and updated passports are needed (for instance an old photo may not cut it). Some countries may not require visas for tourists but may require them for business travelers. Of course, depending on the country you are visiting, you will want to consult a physician about necessary vaccinations.
For US Travelers, a great resource is the US Department of State, says Kaufman, especially if something goes wrong in a foreign country and you need a quick evacuation. The State Department provides country specific information and issues travel warnings for long-term conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable as well as travel alerts that apply to temporary problems.
"In general, you want to make sure that you have the ability to get in touch with someone who can assist you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," says Kaufman. This may be your travel management company. "In a crisis situation you want to have as much information as possible to make an informed decision."
When the earthquake occurred in Japan, travelers couldn't get back into their rooms to access pertinent documents, says Donna Thomas, owner of New Zealand Travel, in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. "The big lesson learned: When you go to dinner or a meeting, take your passport, don't leave it back in your hotel room. Carry contact information for your embassy with you at all times. Keep a fully charged cell phone on you," she explains.
Besides personal safety, you also will want to prepare for your foreign business encounters. After all, you want to get maximum value for the time that is spent abroad. This means you have to be open to different values, behaviors and ways of doing business. Lack of familiarity with the business practices and social customs of another country can weaken your position or prevent you from accomplishing your goals.
Without a doubt there is nothing like a face-to-face meeting with a client or customer. But even the most minor mistakes can cost you time, money and opportunity. Here are seven tips to help you make the necessary adjustments for a business trip abroad.
1. Prepare a well-planned itinerary.
A well thought out itinerary should reflect what your company hopes to accomplish. Think about your goals and relative priorities. For instance, you will want to have two or three appointments confirmed well in advance and spaced comfortably throughout the day. This will be more productive and enjoyable than a crowded agenda that forces you to rush from one meeting to the next. Your schedule should be flexible enough to allow for unexpected problems such as transportation delays and/or opportunities such as an unplanned luncheon invitation.
Kaufman suggests leaving a copy of your itinerary with trusted colleagues, family members or close friends so that they know where you are supposed to be at all times. Also provide a family member or spouse with copies of your passport, medical insurance card, and other pertinent information. In addition, leave an emergency contact list with your travel planner.
2. Seek information on the culture.
Invest some time in learning about the history, culture and customs of the countries to be visited, says Thomas. Attend cross-cultural seminars or training. Read books about that country. Brush up on the differences in negotiating styles, attitudes towards punctuality, gift-giving customs, and the proper use of names and titles (understand the importance of rank and know who the decision makers are when conducting business).
Take the Japanese, for instance, who consider it rude to be late for a business meeting but acceptable for a social occasion. In Latin countries, being late for a business meeting is more tolerable. In the Middle East it is commonplace to engage in small talk before conducting business. The French and the British have different views about discussing business during meals, Thomas says. "Do you talk about business during dinner or do you wait until after you have eaten your meal? The slightest things can really offend people," she says.
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3. Learn protocol and etiquette practices.
Study the general protocol and etiquette of the country or countries you're visiting. Understanding in advance how to greet your counterparts and manage appointments will be most helpful. Check normal work days and business hours. In the Middle East, for example, the workweek is Saturday to Thursday. It is not uncommon in many countries for lunch to last two to four hours. Also take into account foreign holidays. Business manners, religious customs, dietary practices, humor and acceptable dress vary widely from country to country.
Misunderstandings over gestures and body language can cause you more than embarrassment but can lead to business complications, says Thomas. For instance, the okay sign (thumb and index fingers forming a circle with the other fingers pointing upward) is commonly used in the US. But it means zero in France and Thomas says it is a vulgar gesture in Brazil and the Philippines (like giving the middle finger is here in the States). She recommends finding a local person from the host country whom you can openly talk to and learn about customs. Or a good travel planner will know the ins and outs of the country.
4. Learn the native tongue.
Business associates will appreciate any sincere attempt. Study the language or hire a translator, especially if the persons you are meeting with do not speak English or are uncomfortable speaking it. You can learn a foreign language on the go using Praxis Mobile Language Learning Networks, which provides podcasts for Chinese, Spanish, French and Italian. You can listen to and interact with language lessons with an MP3 player, iPod, mobile phone, computer for internet access, television, and CD. Colleges or universities in your area may offer traditional classroom instruction or immersion programs. Other options are audio language lessons and software programs such as those available from Rosetta Stone. Seek out someone who knows the language that can help you learn it by holding conversations.
There may even be subtle differences in the same language, cautions Thomas. "Certain words in English that we use freely could have different meanings outside the US." She cites a situation between American and British businessmen. "During the meeting the Americans said, 'lets table' this, hoping to end the discussion, but the Brits kept on talking. The Americans took this as utter disregard and stormed out, not knowing that in England the expression 'let's table it' means to put it on the table for discussion."
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5. Check travel advisories.
Governments issue advisories about safety concerns that may affect travel to a particular country or region. Travel advisories are released for various reasons, including terrorism, natural disasters, political unrest, wars, health emergencies, and outbreaks of violent crimes against tourists. Check to see if the advisory applies to the entire country or certain areas. "Know your geography," says Thomas. An incident in Okinawa may not impact someone traveling to Hiroshima. "Make your decision to travel with informed knowledge," she adds.
Have a backup plan in case something does go wrong. Find out whether your home country has an embassy or consulate in the place you are visiting. Make sure it is fully staffed and functioning. If the worst happens, you don't want to be stranded in a foreign country without an embassy to help with emergency evacuation or get in contact with your family and friends back home. Be aware of what the embassy can or cannot do. For example, if you are injured the State Department can help you get back home but the cost of medical care comes out of your pocket.
6. Protect yourself.
Kaufman recommends getting travel insurance. "With Road Warrior you can get a yearlong policy as opposed to a trip-by-trip basis. Insurance companies are there to help you out in a crisis such as medical evacuations," he says. Following the earthquake and Tsunami, one-way airfare out of Japan cost $5,000. So, "travel insurance will help mitigate any financial loss you might incur."
Keep in mind that different destinations pose different risks; incorporate that into your strategy for choosing business travel insurance. Do your research. Travel insurance may not cover you in all countries and in all circumstances. Most policies do not cover acts of war, riots or civil disorder. Find out what exclusions apply.
Check with your health plan carrier to see if you need to get another policy to cover medical costs for an injury or sudden illness abroad, says Thomas. What if you need to be airlifted by helicopter and taken to the hospital, are you still covered? Look into the large travel insurance companies such as Travel Guard.
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7. Plan to stay connected.
A plug or adapter may be needed to charge notebooks, cell phones, and PDAs while overseas. Also, contact your cell phone provider before you leave to find out about international options for business trips, says Kaufman. You may be able to get a temporary plan while you are visiting another country. To make an international call from your cell phone, your carrier network must be compatible with that country. Your phone also must be technically capable of making international calls.
Other options are to use Skype on your laptop or a Skype iPhone app to make international calls. You also can rent a cell phone in airport malls around the world from companies such as TripTel or online from sites such as Cellularabroad.com.
If you are traveling to a foreign destination for more than a week or two, consider buying a local phone, suggests Kaufman. You can use that phone for making calls within the host country and it may prove to be less expensive. "Some business travelers also use local SIM cards because it makes communications by mobile phones a lot easier."
Just make sure that you have texting capability. Kaufman says text communication is a lot more reliable than voice communication because it requires less bandwidth. So, during the earthquake in Japan, phone calls weren't going through but people were able to send text messages to their loved ones.