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OPINION: Shattering the romanticised illusion of travelling for work

Photo by yousef alfuhigi on Unsplash

Last week as I stood for over an hour and a half in a glorified garden shed of an airport somewhere in middle England I realised that of all the lies we tell ourselves in this late-stage capitalist world, the biggest, by far is that there is anything remotely glamorous about travelling for work. Sure, being gaslit into seeing long hours and constant exhaustion as a marker of success isn’t ideal, and having our worth and value reduced to an ability to be productive doesn’t do great things for our well-being. Still, nothing is quite as soul-destroying as the bleak reality of never-ending queues, sterile terminals, subpar hotel breakfasts and bone-chillingly dull conference “banter”.

I can’t quite pinpoint when I absorbed the romanticised illusion that travelling for work was all cocktail bars, beautiful clothes and sparkling conversations with glamorous strangers. Tussling shoulder to shoulder with exhausted travellers in the queue of a Ryanair flight it is hard to believe that it could ever be seen as a perk of the job, but for years I have deceived myself into thinking just that. Perhaps it was a pre-Me Too reading of the sophisticated lifestyle of Mad Men’s philandering Don Draper? A yearning for the bygone vintage age of travel with elegant hostesses serving free champagne to smartly dressed businessmen? Or maybe a simple longing for approval from those above me, to be sent skyward, entrusted with the company’s reputation and a handful of business cards. One thing was clear, for some unknowable reason, opportunities to travel for work were to be prized and nobody wanted to be ‘the girl who didn’t go to Paris’. 

Arriving at the airport at 4:45 AM for a recent trip to the UK for a conference that could well have been an email I was treated to one of Ryanairs new efficiency measures, whereby regardless of whether there is a plane waiting or not passengers are bleeped through cattle mart style to stand in a drafty stairwell before making a Squid Game-esque sprint to board the plane. As I approached the top of the non-priority queue a woman wearing a pink coat and the demeanour of an individual you would not want to inform possessed an expired coupon strode in front of me brandishing her priority boarding pass like a ticket onto a titanic life raft. I do not begrudge her priority boarding, she paid for it. I might even be a little jealous of the power she exuded at that moment. However something in the mildly disgusted way she regarded her fellow travellers as we all shared the same Ryanair cattle-call experience triggered a disillusionment, all I could see was the fallacy of the glamour of business travel. 

One of the oft-cited benefits of travelling for work is that you get to visit new places and experience different cultures, but is that really the case? Sparing the fact that budget frequently dictates conferences and events take place in soulless hotels selected for proximity to major transportation hubs rather than Lonely Planet hotspots, even if you are lucky enough to be visiting a desirable location, jam-packed itineraries and non-stop networking requirements are sure to scupper any plans to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Several years ago I was selected as part of a group to attend a four-day conference in Brisbane Australia, ahead of time I relished the opportunity to gloat about my upcoming whistlestop trip down under. However, following a 24-hour flight and transfer to the conference hotel, I might as well have been in the Red Cow Hotel for all I saw of the city. My only experience of local culture was watching an Australian white ibis bird, or “bin chicken” gobble up a partially eaten sandwich when I stole 20 minutes to visit a nearby park on the last morning. 

Often when travelling for work, while your days are crammed with meetings, talks, presentations and networking, your evenings, stripped of your routine are empty. On a few occasions, inspired by think pieces on the glories of eating alone, I’ve pushed myself beyond the hotel bar for dinner. Instead of the promised inner peace, people-watching and self-discovery, I found myself excruciatingly self-conscious, piling food into my mouth as quickly as possible. To those who might suggest I explore this discomfort with solo dining, find the root cause and overcome it, I assure you that as a fat, fortysomething homosexual there are far more pressing mental health concerns for me to put energy into resolving. I am not alone in my dislike of solo dining, research has revealed that eating alone can heighten feelings of loneliness and isolation, and while a solo dinner on a work trip may not be a mental health tipping point in the long run, many people find the idea of sitting down at a table for one to be awkward and uncomfortable.

Finally, it is important to consider whether is there actual value to the practice. Based on a recent work trip where I sat for most of the day between a lesbian covertly checking photos of her cat and a gay man nonchalantly swiping through racy pics from a Grindr paramour. Aside from making me prouder than ever to be a member of the Queer community, the experience remained inconclusive on the value of the time, energy and effort it took us all to be there.

On another occasion, early in my career, I was dispatched to a conference in Edinburgh to pick up tips and tricks for a new project. On the first morning, I jumped on the bus to the venue ready to make an impact, but as the scenery became distinctly more suburban and Edinburgh faded into the background I realised that perhaps in my zealousness I may have boarded a bus going in the wrong direction. Many panicked hours of traversing the Scottish countryside later consumed by guilt and anxiety, I arrived, my to-do list in tatters. Back in the office I braced myself for the inevitable dressing down, only to never be asked a single question about the success or failures of my trip and be left wondering what the point of it all had been.

Returning to the garden shed-like airport in the English midlands on my trip home I spotted the lady in the pink coat again, looking much more serene and content, sporting a bulging duty-free bag and like the rest of us, the look of a person who just wanted to get home to their own bed. I certainly believe that the status attached to business travel is a hallmark of the cult of busyness, we all like to look important and feel indispensable but it’s about time we shed the illusion of glamour and acknowledge the reality that travelling for work is not a perk of the job, it is an often inconvenient necessary evil which we are encouraged to feel grateful for.

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