Business travel poll 2006: Confessions of a business travel diva
You always need seat 1A, unless you’ve got a private jet. Your hotel room has to be just so. You’ve got a British Airways black card. Then you’re a travel diva, as Abigail Hofman knows only too well.
ARE YOU A travel diva? Do you refuse to board an aircraft without your shahtoosh wrap, Pratesi neck cushion and supply of Acqua di Parma disinfectant wipes? Are you a refusenik when it comes to aircraft victuals, preferring to import your own nutritious but easily digestible snacks? Do you have your usual room at hotels that you visit frequently and a tendency to throw a hissy fit if the habitual is unavailable?
Today, the masses are on the move and the discerning business traveller is constantly threatened by this tidal wave of democracy. Post 9/11, foreign travel is no longer fun. Most urban airports resemble refugee camps: security queues snake for miles and privilege is regarded with suspicion. On my last trip to the States in April, I was virtually strip-searched on three occasions. Why? Because I was travelling internally on a first class, one-way ticket.
I am an unabashed travel diva. My former colleague, Allegra Berman, a managing director at UBS, remembers: “Your mantra was, ‘I want a quiet room with a king-size bed on a high floor, away from the lifts.’ I thought it was funny but now I find myself telling my secretary the same thing.” I am not alone in being so particular. A few years ago, a friend boarded a plane with Jonathan Chenevix-Trench, chairman of Morgan Stanley International. Chenevix-Trench’s boarding card stated 1A. But someone was sitting in his seat – a former governor of the Bank of England. Apparently, not a word was exchanged. The imperturbable ex-governor gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. Chenevix-Trench docilely moved down the cabin.
Chenevix-Trench obviously does not suffer from TD syndrome. And there seems to be a male-female divide when it comes to foreign forays. Men are rarely exercised about travel niceties (or necessities as I regard them). I’ve lost count of the number of times male colleagues told me: “I don’t care which hotel I stay at. It’s only for a couple of nights.”
Such words send a shiver of horror down the TD’s spine. Why put up with lumpy mattresses, stained carpets and other people’s pubic hair in the shower when there might be a Four Seasons nearby? The very words, “four seasons” (a sort of melodic purr), are enough to soothe the hassled business traveller’s soul. When I accompanied my friend Frankie on a business trip to Budapest, we stayed in a suite overlooking the Danube at the magnificent art nouveau Four Seasons. I called room service for breakfast and spoke to a bemused Hungarian. “Madame would like cot... cot... cottidge cheese?” he stuttered, obviously oblivious to this obscure morning delicacy. I sighed despairingly and prepared myself to fast until lunch. Twenty minutes later, a silver tureen of deliciously creamy cottage cheese appeared. “Service for us is about exceeding guest expectations,” says Leah Marshall, front-of-house manager at the Four Seasons George V in Paris.
The frequent traveller, however, knows how to negotiate his way around less well run establishments. Michael Meyer, a discerning chief executive, advises: “Never call down to change your room. Summon the bellhop and have your bags taken to reception. Then descend and in front of all the other guests who are checking in, complain loudly and demand a better room. It never fails.” Michael also elaborated on what he called the mini-bar mojo: “Mini-bars are a licence for hotels to rob you. As soon as you get in to your room, ask them to empty it. This has two advantages. First, you’ll never be disturbed whilst in the bath by some rottweiler of an attendant wanting to ‘replenish’. Second, you can stroll around the corner to the Korean grocery and import dirt cheap mineral water.”
Ian Hannam, chairman of JPMorgan equity capital markets, is a man who probably spends more time on a plane than at home. At a recent dinner party, he highlighted Mumbai as a strong contender for the world’s worst airport. “When you land, it’s hilarious to watch the portly, 50-something, first-class passengers. They elbow their way to the door and start walking briskly, but with some dignity, towards immigration. Within a few minutes, they are sprinting maniacally because they know that otherwise they’ll be queuing for hours.” Fund manager Carol Ferguson knows Mumbai airport well: “The flights always arrive at some ungodly hour. There’s only one escalator down to immigration. Inevitably, it’s not working. And your luggage comes out on two carousels. So you have to do a desperate darting action between them.”
Miami airport, the gateway to Latin America, is my personal blackspot. It’s a third-world entrepôt that somehow got transplanted to the United States. Contrast this with shiny, sprawling Singapore airport – a must-stop destination for the TD, (the Cathay Pacific first-class lounge receives rave reviews). The new hip-hop Hong Kong airport (or Chek Lap Kok for the pedantic) also has its devotees. Meyer again: “I love the way the top hotels, like the Peninsula, send a golf cart to meet you at the jetty where you disembark and then ferry you to your limousine.”
In this age of mass travel, privilege is privacy. You are a nonentity if you have to fly commercial. The very rich might contemplate it for transatlantic trips. But inter-continental it has to be a private plane, which normally means fractional jet ownership courtesy of NetJets. Graeme Weston, senior vice-president of NetJets Europe, explains: “NetJets is either the ultimate choice or it’s for when there is no choice – and you have to get somewhere difficult quickly.” The service is reassuringly expensive. The entry-level programme, the NetJets private jets card, is $125,000, which gives you 25 hours flying time on a seven-seater plane. “Maybe… one day in a parallel universe,” I promised myself. “Look at it this way,” Weston said persuasively. “My clients have established a degree of control over most aspects of their lives. Yet when they go to an international airport, they agree to a waiver that says: ‘Please treat me like a sub-human.’ NetJets ends all that.”
And Weston has a point. Some 36 million people travelled with BA last year. In my experience, the BA gold card is worth exactly nothing. Flashing your gold card (or, worse, attaching it to your briefcase) is a sure sign that you’re a loser – so middle-management, darling! If you are truly a superior being, you possess a BA Premier black card and benefit from total pampering. I have a mole who claims there used to be 1,000 BA black cards. A recent cull reduced this to 400. Most black cards are renewed annually. However, there are said to be 100 “lifers”. My mole is a lifer. He is vague as to how he pulled off this coup. “It’s not a commercial decision,” Mole said firmly. “Each card has to be approved by the main BA board.”
But sometimes it can all go horribly wrong. A female banker describes the business trip from hell. She flew via Seattle to visit an investor in Alaska. BA lost her luggage: “There I was padding around Seattle airport in my sleeper suit and nearly missed my connection to Juneau.” She then spent the whole night making irate calls to BA customer services trying to track down her lost chattels. But in vain. She thus appeared, sheepish and sleep-deprived, at the 9am client meeting in the same sleeper suit (and, much worse, the previous day’s underwear). “Has she not heard of going commando?” my friend Frankie quipped. On the way back, Banker Babe arrived at the Alaska Airlines check-in at Juneau (the one-horse town to end all one-horse towns) and was blithely informed that BA had cancelled the Seattle to London plane. She eventually limped back to London via New York with American Airways, vowing never again to set foot outside Chelsea.
So when it all gets too much? When the cut and thrust of deals at dawn palls. Or when your long-suffering wife threatens divorce unless she sees you for more than a cursory grunt of “good-night”. Where does the dog’s bollocks businessman go for down time? Abigail’s apotheosis of absolutely fabulous hostelries follows:
1. Hotel Pitrizza, Sardinia (“The best place to take a mistress,” insisted one roué. “No glitz and no mixing.”)
2. La Réserve, Beaulieu sur Mer, France (man to know: Gérard, the maître de piscine)
3. The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur, Rajhastan (whatever you do, though, don’t go via Mumbai airport).
4. Cayo Espanto, Belize (your own private island for blissed-out isolation).
And for those who are prepared to haemorrhage money, why not try:
5. La Loma, Cuixmala, Mexico (Sir James Goldsmith’s former holiday hideaway. A mere $15,000 a night. Which London-based or is it LA-based, banker was sighted there several Christmases ago? Clue for the clueless: his lovely wife is said to have enjoyed a close friendship with the English footballer Rio Ferdinand. Bankers, footballers – is there really any difference? “They’re all overpaid and over here,” according to my mother, and if you think about Sven-Göran Eriksson, she’s right.)
And finally, some summer sightings: David Hasselhoff, decrepit Baywatch star, at uber-chic KX gym in Knightsbridge, loading the telephone number for Boujis Nightclub onto his mobile phone. Desperate Dave – does the phrase “ageing Lothario” mean nothing to you?
Satanic Verses’ author Salman Rushdie and his gorgeous wife, Padma, dining with friends at le Caprice. Am I the only person who wonders what she sees in the grizzled chipmunk?
Roman Abramovich and a dozen or so heavies at the England/Sweden game in Cologne. But my friend Frankie’s private plane was cleared for takeoff first. Hooray for the little man!