Treading the Backstreets

Last month I decided to call time on international business travel.  The decision has been coming for a while as I have tried to delay the inevitable, but a couple of slipped discs have made longer flights and sitting for hours in airports or treading their hard walkways increasingly difficult.  While I won’t miss any of the waiting for security, delayed boarding times, packed aeroplanes, lousy overpriced food and uncomfortable waiting areas, I will very much miss working with people across countries and cultures.

Wherever I have travelled, I always made time to at least walk around the area where I have been staying.  Business travellers see a lot of airports, taxi cab and train interiors, hotels and offices and not enough of the countries they are so privileged to visit. I have walked around more cities than I can remember, sometimes just for a short distance and sometimes for several hours, soaking in everything they have to offer.

Most of my walks have taken place in the early morning when the cities are waking up. There is something magical about being able to witness market stall holders filling their stalls with fruit and vegetables, coffee houses striking up their coffee machines for the first time that day, street cleaners making the streets presentable for the day ahead. It helps to wake me into my day. To understand a city, you need to live it for a while, and when you don’t have the luxury of being able to spend several weeks absorbing a city’s sights and sounds, a short walk can be the next best thing.

I have only rarely been accompanied by a colleague or a client, but every walk has been an eye-opener. I can think of two occasions, one in Barcelona and one in New York City, where,  long morning walks before our meetings began for the day seemed visibly to lift my companions. By ‘lift’ I mean they appeared more confident and positive as we walked and talked our way into the day. Whenever you can, take your clients and colleagues out of the office for a walk. It really does make a difference.

In Barcelona, we left our hotel on Las Ramblas on a sunny morning before breakfast. It was about 5:30 am when the night before was just ending for that particular city. We were due to meet an architect in offices in the Gothic Quarter at 11 am so had plenty of time to kill. Our walk meandered through that area so we pinpointed exactly where our meeting would take place, then onto the shore, up the hill into the Olympic Park and back down into the centre of the city.

It took four hours because we took our time. It wasn’t until we began our descent back into the city that the corner coffee houses began to open their doors. These were tiny places in the back streets who took some of their trade from commuters starting their journeys to work. They were welcoming and the coffee was fabulous, so fabulous that we stopped in three different coffee houses on our route back to the hotel.

We may have been casually dressed for the walk but we were clearly two Englishmen in an unfamiliar part of the city. So we struck up a conversation with the café owners and their customers who were interested in what we were doing there. At the second of our stops, we were in conversation with a young guy who was on his way to work at the very office where we were to meet at 11 am. So as well as a perspective on the city, our bonus was to also gain a perspective on the place he worked. We didn’t learn much, but when we walked through the door a couple of hours later the place felt familiar.

In New York, my client and I had a few hours to kill before our flight back to the UK. We had been booked into an ‘affordable’ hotel in Midtown East called the Kimberley Hotel, where each of us had a suite of rooms. That had honestly not been the plan. We had relied on the British Consulate to recommend affordable hotels and somehow wires got crossed! So we lorded it for a couple of nights, and it seemed to raise eyebrows when customers learned where we were staying.

New York never sleeps and has such a vibrant atmosphere, but you do need to have your wits about you. On one trip I witnessed two thefts and an arrest in half an hour, but if you walk around a city as if you own it you tend to stay safe. We had a leisurely breakfast and set off just after nine am. Heading down to FDR Drive along the waterfront from where you get a view of Roosevelt Island, we then tracked back via the United Nations Building where there was a major conference taking place.

It was Halloween and everywhere was decked out with pumpkins, witches and their broomsticks. Many of the people we passed were on their way to work in fancy dress. The city had a big smile on its face. Our circuit took us back to the hotel along 3rd Avenue where it seemed every few paces someone was trying to sell you something, yet not once did it feel offensive as it can in so many other cities. I am not one to suffer hawkers but we spoke to some very nice people. and when we didn’t buy anything they politely backed off.

So the next time you visit a new city, walk it or experience it in some other way. Take in a concert, use the restaurants and bars close by your hotel, whatever you have time to do. It is an enriching experience that enables you in later years to recall the memories from each city individually, and you do operate better as a result.

Caveat – Always take advice from hotel staff or local contacts. Some cities are dangerous for visitors to walk around, or there may be areas that are best avoided.

Article written by John Reed - Associate of Strong & Herd LLP

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