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Why We Travel

Perhaps it is just a stress reaction to current economic difficulties, but recently a couple of people told me they were irritated to see that I was traveling somewhere in the world while they were struggling to keep their businesses afloat. I don’t think these folks thought that their lot would have somehow magically improved if I had chosen not to make that trip, but human nature is what it is.

In case you might also feel a bit put off when you look at our travels, perhaps even thinking that to make trips like these so often I must be raking in massive amounts of money (I wish), here is the back story that I hope it will put a few things into perspective. Defensive? Perhaps a bit, but just think of it as another exercise in learning to know less and listen more.



Many people spend (a lot of) money on their children -- from doctors, clothing and school supplies to cars and college tuition -- and think nothing of it. Household pets can be an expensive proposition. Perhaps you have a boat ... or a hobby that eats up your spare time and cash ... or perhaps every available resource goes into your place of business. We all have different activities that bring pleasure and cost money ... and we each get to choose what they are.

Margene and I have no kids or critters to support so we choose to spend our money (significantly less than college tuition, by the way) to see more of the world while we still have our health and strength. In our later years, the destinations are more likely to be local (although a two-week driving trip across the USA is more expensive -- and probably more of a hassle -- than two weeks in Italy) ... but yes, we do love to travel.

To make this possible, I have intentionally created a business I can operate, at least for brief periods, from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. We have also learned how to spend two weeks overseas for far less than you spent to take the kids to Disney World for a week. Really!

My speaking and consulting work involves a lot of travel. Many have commented that they would not want to be jumping on and off airplanes as often as I do ... and the truth is that every year I am less excited by it myself. But frequent flyer miles are the consolation prize. Thanks to frequent flyer miles, we rarely spend a dime on airfare, aside from a few mandatory fees and taxes.

These "free" miles come at a real physical cost, but I accumulate a bunch of them ... and we use them. As the airlines continue to make it more difficult to get award tickets, we plan ahead. We snag hard-to-get seats as soon as they are released, usually a year in advance ... and before they raise the award requirements yet again.

Occasionally we find an airfare so low that it doesn't even make sense to use miles. These deals often pop up during off-peak times, but with no kids in school, no animals to board, a wife who doesn't work and a mobile business model, I have a lot more latitude than most people.

So when a two-day British Airways sale offered a $200 economy class roundtrip from Seattle to London a few years back, we grabbed it ... because we could. When we find a deal where we can fly from Seattle to somewhere in Europe for less than the airfare to visit my sister in New England, it is certainly tempting, particularly when it also puts miles in the frequent flyer account at the same time!

To our way of thinking, travel is not typically about traditional sightseeing (although to be in India and not see the Taj Mahal would have been unthinkable!) As someone in New Zealand once pointed out, we are travelers, not tourists. For us, the highlight of any trip is always meeting the people, stumbling upon something totally unexpected and generally getting a feel for what daily life is like in another culture.

This means experiencing the absolute chaos of the rail system in India, driving on the "wrong" side of the road (while shifting gears with the left hand) in England, puzzling over a transvestite fashion show in a Chinese crocodile park (true!) and actually carrying on a conversation with someone in Slovenia in the only languages we remotely had in common -- a smattering of German and Italian!

It also means having dinner with the Marquis in the medieval kitchen of Chateau Brissac in France, riding a camel through the Thar Desert on the Pakistan border, strolling through the magical Christmas lights of Tivoli on a frosty night in Copenhagen and sipping wine with good friends on the terrace of a cliffside villa on Santorini as we watch another perfect sunset in the Greek islands!

You will never have experiences like these in an organized tour group. You won't be able to really explore restaurants and foodservice ideas or open yourself up to serendipity when a commercial company plans the itinerary. You will move more smoothly through the requisite tourist attractions, of course, but effectively insulated from any extended meaningful contact with the locals.

That may be a more efficient use of time, but you will never learn much about another country if you just come back with pictures of old buildings. We savor the "sudden surprises" as much as the scenery.

To invite the unexpected, we belong to a travel club that allows us to stay with other members all over the world for a few dollars a night ... or we rent a house with a group of friends and become temporary locals for a week or more ... or we just rent a car, hit the road in a foreign land and make it up on the fly.

Traveling this way, we get up close and personal with the country and seldom pay anything close to the price of a hotel room ... sometimes to the chagrin of my bride! If you want to know how to travel comfortably on the cheap, just ask me -- I'm getting it down to an art form!

Professionally, the benefit of international travel is that I notice things in other countries that I don't notice in my own culture. Immersing myself in a strange country is humbling -- a reminder that life goes on in many different languages and in many different ways ... and it goes on quite nicely, thank you.

I'm afraid that we Americans in general are far too insular in their views, scarcely acknowledging that anything of importance happens outside our borders. I find that travel is the key to gaining a more global perspective on what is increasingly a global marketplace.

New experiences can trigger powerful insights. These "aha" moments not only enrich my own life, but lead to valuable tips I can then pass along for the benefit of my subscribers, clients and audience members -- ideas to help make their restaurants stand out from their competition and appeal to their guests in new and refreshing ways.

I like to think that an ever-expanding world view is a good part of the reason I have developed and retained a loyal following in the hospitality community. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it!)

Because I continue to actively run my business while I am out of the country, because my wife is an officer of the corporation, because we use the trips to discuss business matters and because I study the local restaurants and write up daily insights in my trip reports (it takes at least two hours a day just to do that), the trips are also fully deductible. Just tell me what the rules are and I will figure out how to play the game.

The bottom line is that travel probably serves a different purpose in our lives than it might in yours. Sometimes I think it would be nice to be surrounded by the children I never had, but I promise not to feel jealous that you have kids, grandkids, a houseful of pets and a boat on the lake. (Besides, it is always better to have a friend with a boat than to actually own one. Invite me aboard ... I'll bring the beer!)

By the same token, please don't waste a nanosecond of your peace of mind feeling ticked off that my priorities differ from yours. When you don't have the kids they let you keep the money ... and spend it any way you want! I wouldn't be nearly as effective at what I do if I didn't travel.

In life there are lots of right answers. Pick one you like.