Never Be Bored on a Business Trip Again

July 12, 2013

Photo by Ali Guichard / IDEO

Many people think of business travel as a chore. I see it as an opportunity. Not to generate new work, necessarily (though that’s nice, too), but to exercise my curiosity, think about problems in new ways, and get inspired.

Sometimes that inspiration hits as soon as I step off the plane, like it did when I first flew into Vancouver. Airports are welcome mats for the places we’re visiting, but all too often, they’re pretty unwelcoming. Not so at British Columbia’s hub, where on my walk to customs I was immersed in a wonderful and unexpected introduction to the sights and sounds of the Pacific Northwest. It made me wonder: How might we design the experience of arriving in a place in ways that acclimate and delight the road-weary? That applies to airports, but also to hotels, and even to new modes of travel like Airbnb.

On my first trip to India, I was struck by an unusual practice of the small convenience stores on every street: The shopkeepers never throw anything out. As you venture further into the store, you find layer upon layer of old advertising posters and products in vintage packaging. In the US, the old stock would signal a badly run business, but in Delhi it gave the stores an incredibly rich sense of history. I thought: Could Western retailers increase customer loyalty if they showcased their history in some way?

One final story. Early one morning in Beijing, I noticed a food vendor on the street. She had just finished making breakfast for some nearby construction workers and was stashing her cookware — including a large vat of piping-hot oil — on her moped. It was an elaborate and dangerous process that begged the question: how could better design improve conditions for the working poor?

Such A-ha! moments are everywhere — even on a business trip — but you have to train your eye to look for them. So, wherever work takes you, make sure to get out of the hotel and watch everyday people living their everyday lives. Even if it’s just for an hour, I guarantee you’ll find more inspiration than you ever would inside a windowless conference room.

What everyday sights have inspired you on your travels?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)