On The Road Again

Tom Bedecarré was supposed to be home in time for the last few minutes of the TV news. Instead, he’ll be lucky to get to San Francisco before 2 a.m. His flight was postponed, and he’s used all the power in his cell phone trying to get on another one so he can get home at all tonight and be back at work tomorrow.

At the gate, the AKQA CEO apologizes to people who have to step over the cord to his cell, which is plugged into the wall. “Business travel these days is all about finding wireless hot spots and hidden electrical outlets,” he says, sounding exhausted. “It’s like living in a Mad Max movie. There’s a shortage of energy, and you find it where you can.”

For agency professionals on tight schedules, traveling for business has never been as glamorous or adventurous as outsiders might think. Struggling airlines, crowded airports and tightened security have only made it worse. Whether they’re veterans like Bedecarré or young creatives on a shoot, they figure out ways to adapt.

Eric Asche of GSD&M takes pictures of his shoes. He has propped his feet in an airplane window for a snapshot of the view and laid down on a park bench to shoot his shoes with landmarks in the background. He says the pictures show where he’s been, help him fight off boredom and provide a reassuring routine while he’s away.

Asche, 33, travels about 90 business days a year; the shoe shots are but one coping mechanism. He tries to be the last passenger on each plane, to avoid extra time in “that tube.” He always pats the plane, giving it two pats if the plaque at the doorway says the aircraft was built before 1985. Once on board, he doesn’t talk to his fellow passengers and spends the flight listening to music on his iPod. “I treasure that time,” he says. “It is the only time my phone and BlackBerry PDA are turned off.”

Many execs say the time in the air is the best part. Pat Doody, president of WongDoody in Seattle, calls it his cocoon time. “In the office, my day consists of five-minute pods broken up by interruptions,” he says. “On a flight to Chicago, I have four or five uninterrupted hours. I can concentrate on a three-year strategic plan for the agency or a client’s marketing program.”

Bedecarré often uses the conference rooms in the airlines’ members-only airport lounges. Frequent travelers say the $250-300 annual fee for such a luxury is worth every penny.

Hans Ullmark, chairman of Collaborate, says timing is everything when he makes his frequent treks between agency offices in San Francisco and Stockholm, Sweden. “Take the late-afternoon flight from SFO to London, and then connect,” he says. “You’ll arrive in the p.m. and can check into the hotel without a problem.” On the way home, he says, “I always take the latest flight out of London, Paris or Frankfurt. This means I can either work a half day or just chill. I still arrive around 6 p.m., in time for dinner with my family.”

At his hotel, Asche has a number of tricks. “I never drink coffee in the room,” he says. “I always find a local coffeehouse where I can go every morning to replicate my day at home.” He also writes his room number on a pack of hotel matches and keeps it in his pocket. “When I’ve been on the road and hopping from hotel to hotel, it’s easy to forget which hotel, let alone the room number, where I’m staying,” he explains.

Food is always an issue. One account director who watches her weight survives on frozen yogurt. Ullmark and others eat a big meal before heading to the airport and then subsist on bottled water and coffee. When Asche is in one place for at least three days, he empties the hotel fridge and fills it with juice, milk, fruit and other snacks.

Some harried execs cope by taking a more Zen approach. “Getting there can be a cleansing period” when you are immersed in a different environment than the office, says Michael Borosky, creative director at Eleven in San Francisco. “It’s a chance to gain perspective and get ready for the task ahead.”

Advertising’s road warriors may feel less like James Bond and more like Mad Max, foraging for nuts and energy. But mostly it’s just another part of the job. Work is still a four-letter word, says Doody. “Travel should be, too.”