If you consider a business trip an inconvenience, an interruption from “real work” or an unnecessary expense, you’re not alone. With email, texting and videoconferencing available today, why would you actually pay to go see clients and vendors, right?
Not so fast, says small business expert Rhonda Abrams. “You should consider travel an invaluable investment in your small business and one of the smartest ways to build your business,” says Abrams, a business columnist for USA Today and CEO of The Planning Shop, a publisher of entrepreneurship and small business resources. “Even in our high-tech world, people still want to do business with other people.”
In fact, Abrams says booking in-person meeting is one of the best ways to make sure your clients and vendors think of you as more than just an email address or voice on the phone. “I’ve renewed six-figure business deals and negotiated significant savings from regular vendors just by making the effort to travel to see them,” she says.
For many business owners, in-person meetings can require travel. Here’s how to make your travel “investment” as cost-effective as possible.
If you’re flying to a business conference or customer meeting, tack on an extra day or two to meet with additional nearby clients, potential customers or suppliers. “This is a great way to expand your possible return on your travel investment,” Abrams says.
Your nearby contacts needn’t be in the same town as your initial meeting. If you can rent a car and reach them with a reasonable amount of driving, it’s worth it, Abrams says. After all, your biggest initial cost was your airline flight. A rental car and an extra night or two at hotels are comparatively inexpensive add-ons, she says.
If you have a choice, Abrams suggests flying into Oakland instead of San Francisco, or Baltimore instead of Washington, D.C. Your flight will likely be cheaper, and the airport may be less hectic. Abrams has noticed that rental cars are often cheaper when you pick them up from secondary hubs, too.
Abrams says she flies to see a client who often changes meeting times at the last minute. She says she chooses to fly Southwest Airlines when visiting that customer, so she won’t incur extra fees for cancellations or flight changes. A seemingly cheaper flight on one airline might not be such a bargain if there’s a chance you’ll need to rebook it and pay extra charges.
If you earn airline frequent-flyer points or miles as a small business owner, Abrams suggests redeeming them for work trips and paying out-of-pocket for personal travel. Why? For a vacation trip, you usually have plenty of time to research cheap fares. On the other hand, you’re more likely to need to book an expensive, midweek flight for business trips. Use frequent-flyer miles for the spendier trip, Abrams says.
If you’re booking a room at the last minute, Abrams says you may be able to get a better rate by calling the hotel’s front desk rather than booking through on online consolidator. Look for the hotel’s local number rather than the hotel chain’s toll-free number. Sometimes just being pleasant and simply asking the hotel staffer, “Can you do any better on that price?’ is enough to net you a room discount or free breakfast, she says.
Carry inexpensive (and often healthier) snacks rather than buying them at the airport or your hotel’s overpriced gift shop. Bring in sandwiches from a local sub shop to your hotel room occasionally rather than dine out. Even though meals can be expensed on your business taxes, it may be more cost-effective to pack or find your own less-expensive eats when you travel, Abrams says.
If you’re treating a client to dinner, however, that’s the time to splurge a little. “You can get to know business associates much better, on a deeper level that can really enhance your work relationship, when you ‘break bread’ together,” Abrams says.
Business trips don’t have to focus just on customers. Make time to visit printing suppliers, product manufacturers, website designers — or any vendor with whom you do significant business. “When you meet in person, you build trust and you’re suddenly much more than just a credit line to them,” says Abrams. “Also, if you’re ever in a pinch, your vendors are more likely to bend over backwards for you if they’ve actually met you.”