12 Ways to Put the Travel Back Into Business Travel

How to avoid the corporate expense account blahs and get an authentic experience

“Oh, you’ve been to so many places,” said the business traveler’s friend. “Yes, but most of the time, it’s just a cab ride from the airport to the hotel to the office, back to the airport. I hardly feel like I’ve seen those cities,” replied the business traveler. “Oh, but you’ve been to so many places.”

If you’re a business traveler, that conversation probably sounds eerily familiar. I think of a trip where I drove directly to the airport, flew to New York on the 6 am flight, cabbed it to the conference center, cabbed it back to the airport and flew home, all in one day. My meals were either in the airport or in the conference center. All I saw of New York was the cab ride and descent into LaGuardia.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, there will always be those business trips that are a rushed mess, but on most trips, you have some flexibility to explore. So with that in mind, here are 12 tips to get more quality travel experiences into your business trips.

#1. Get out and walk in the city: On a recent trip to New York, I could have grabbed the cab to go the 12 blocks between the hotel and a meeting, but instead I slung the laptop over the shoulder and ventured into the city streets. It was cold, so I had to bundle up, but the benefit was that I spent more time getting acquainted with the city, learned a little more about the area around Madison Avenue and had my blood warm and flowing by the time I walked into a meeting. Our controller probably smiled as well, since it saved a few bucks, and come to think of it, there was a health perk for me.

#2. Ditch the business conference cocktail party: Go in, have a drink and then leave. So often, conferences hold cocktail parties from 6 to 9 in the evenings. The problem with this is that by the time it’s over, you’re probably too tired to go out and see the city, and well, you’re already at the hotel, so why not just call it a night? No, no, no! Head in, scope out the cocktail scene. If there’s little mingling and it’s just people who know each other standing around talking to themselves, then bolt! Grab a co-worker or even a colleague from the conference and head out. Instead of stuffing yourselves on the hors d’oeuvres, research a good restaurant or an evening performance and then go. You’ll be at the conference by 7:30 the next morning anyway for the continental breakfast.

#3. Avoid the business-travel steakhouses. I love a steak as much as anyone else, but I was speaking with another Where editor recently, and we were bemoaning how many business travelers hit the city, eat at the same steakhouses that sales people and clients always go, rather than venturing out. Still want a steak? Try to find the local steakhouse. It’s possible you’ll spend more dollars on a cab to get there, but if it’s off the beaten path, you might find that you recoup that money thanks to a fairly priced cut of steak at a place that doesn’t just cater to corporate expense accounts.

Max's Wine Dive: a Texas favorite where a signature dish is the enormous egg sandwich (paired with a glass of wine, of course). (©Geoff Kohl/WhereTraveler.com)

#4. Eat where the locals eat. This is a follow-on to the last tip. Always find out where the locals go. Experiencing a city’s cuisine (like these 15 travel-worthy restaurants) is paramount. Skip the national-chain restaurants (but check out the rising new local restaurant groups) and your co-workers and clients might be impressed by your creativity and drive to try something new. If your clients are locals, they will love recommending you a place that they enjoy, and all of you will be more comfortable because of it.

#5. Choose your hotel location wisely. If you’re staying near the airport because that’s where you have to fly out the next morning, then, yes, you’ll get those extra 30 minutes of sleep, but what you’ll trade off is seeing a new side of the town. Pick your hotel to be in a captivating area, whether that’s downtown or that trendy neighborhood that the locals love—as long as it’s within reason of your business destination. If you’re hotel isn’t within walking distance or a quick cab ride of some destination of note (and assuming you didn’t pick it for its remoteness and quiet qualities), then I’d question that you may have picked the wrong hotel.

#6. Do something not on the business itinerary. As a corporate strategy executive who spends half his life on the road tells me, you need to “augment your frequent-flier miles and frequent sleeper points with frequent traveler points gained by actually doing something in each new city.” Put a landmark or a museum on the list and go there. You may not have all the time you’d really prefer to experience the museum, but even if you only get through one or two of the exhibits before it’s time to go back and drop off the rental car, it’s an improvement.

#7. Create a travel hobby. For some people, it’s running through the city. For others it’s eating the food for which the city is known. For some it’s taking their camera and playing travel photographer. Maybe it’s checking out one historic site. Maybe it’s a personal game to find the best Italian restaurant in the world. Just don’t make your hobby “Buy a trinket in some generic tourist trap shop.” Your collections of little porcelain bells with city names painted on them? No, thanks.

#8. Leave the hotel. Hotels these days have some pretty good restaurants. They sometimes even have a good bar. And if you’re pressed on time, I’m not going to say you should never eat or drink there. Sometimes you have to do that. But so many times, if you want to grab a drink, get out of the hotel, because you know who you’re going to meet in the hotel bar? More business travelers just like you. Somewhere out there, maybe around the block, or a mile away is a place where they don’t charge $8.75 for a Bud Light in a no-ambiance setting 20 feet from check-in. Somewhere out there is the kind of place where they have a martini special, live lounge jazz and no cover charge.

#9. Play with your flight schedule. Even if you have family to get back to, it’s OK once in a while to take the late flight back so that you can take in the city in the evening before it’s time for wheels up and the ride back home. Stay late enough to see the sunset over the city. Or catch the evening’s free concert the city hosts in its downtown park. Sneak in a walking tour at dusk, after most of the tourists have gone for the day. On the plus side, the later flights back to your home base are often less expensive, so you may still save money even if you have to expense another meal in the city.

#10. Take a friend or loved one. You’ll be surprised how much more fun can be had and how much more willing you will be to explore if you have a travel partner. It’s way easier to motivate to try the locals-only restaurant or visit the landmark if you have a travel buddy. They can pay their own way, and since you already have the hotel room paid for, some of their cost is already covered.

#11. Book an extra day or a weekend. Don’t fly back on Friday night. If you could get a weekend in that city without having to pay for the airfare, so that you just pay your hotel and food bills, would you do it? I thought so. Most businesses will offer flexibility to their corporate travelers such that if you can show that the airfare on a different day is the same as or less than the cost of a business-only trip, they’ll still cover it. I think of the time that I stayed in Colorado for two days after a business trip. I got a weekend in the Rockies (paid out of my pocket) and my employer saved $200 on my ticket. It turned out that it dumped eight inches of fresh powder during the tail end of the ski season, so I couldn’t have been happier to boot up.

#12. Visit your old friends. Sure, you see updates from them on Facebook—how they’re growing up, or how their kids are growing up. So, if you’re anywhere near their town, go visit them. Set up dinner with them, and get back into their lives. There were reasons you were great friends once. Get reacquainted with those reasons, and find yourself telling their spouse about that one time in college when …