Once I got to travel to Paris for work. I was thrilled. I was going to Paris. Someone else was footing the bill. I could go to the Louvre during my lunch break and take a walk through the Tuileries Gardens before dinner. It would, most definitely, be perfect.
But it wasn’t.
I arrived to my hotel and conference center with an hour to spare before the first event and then didn’t leave the hotel for the next 48 hours. Not even once. My room looked out over the back of the nondescript hotel, onto a series of other generically European hotels and apartment buildings. The conference was held in the basement of all places, and the massive ballroom had not a single window. The most French thing that happened was the taxi ride back to the train station where I caught the EuroStar train to London.
I could have been anywhere.
Work travel is never easy. Sure, there’s the nice benefit of not paying for anything, but the very obvious obstacle of having no time to explore. Or, if there is time, it’s precious and complicated and involves some combination of working in a hotel room and sheepishly explaining to colleagues that instead of spending the hour of downtime resting or having a drink with them, you’d rather go to a museum.
Until you’ve been there, staring out a board room window while a beautiful and unknown city pulses beneath you, or worse, in a basement conference room, you haven’t experienced that peculiar mix of anxiety and regret that you’re missing out and have very little say in your experience at all.
Since that fateful Paris trip, I have been improving my work travel skills and now have it down to a bit of a science. For a recent conference in Krakow, Poland (a new city and country for me!) I pulled out all the stops, employed every trick I’ve got, to maximize the fun around the work.
First, the hotel.
My conference was held at a large hotel/conference center outside the city center of Krakow. But rather than booking a room there, like all the other attendees, I booked a room at a hotel right in city center, smack in the middle of Market Square. That meant I had to physically travel to and from the conference each day, which probably resulted in 30 minutes less sleep, but the benefit of waking up across the way from the hourly bugler at St. Mary’s Cathedral was priceless.
Each morning I walked down the pedestrian-only cobblestone streets to the point where Krakow becomes a real city, one with commuters and trams and lots of people rushing to work. I walked past office buildings and apartment complexes and large grocery stores, until reaching my own place of work for the day. I probably saw more during those walks than my colleagues saw their entire time in Krakow.
Secondly, I arrived to Poland a full day in advance of my first work event. I was able to do this because I planned for it, blocking off the old Outlook calendar, and scheduling in-person meetings for earlier in the week.
On this particular Wednesday, I was able to take a free walking tour of Krakow’s Old Town after getting in a couple hours of morning work, and then bought a kebab on the street to have lunch back in my room, checking emails and catching up.
After a few more hours of work in the afternoon, I stepped back out to take a local food tour with a handful of other tourists. Our tour ended around sunset and some of my new friends and I had a few pints together at an outdoor cafe and then found a cozy restaurant to have dinner. I was home by 10, did a final check of various work projects, and promptly passed out.
At 8am on Thursday, I was down in the basement conference room at a nondescript hotel in Krakow, but I had already seen and done more than I could have hoped for.
That twang of anxiety and regret never reached me.
My final little hack and one that isn’t very popular with my co-workers: throughout the whole trip, I was clear with my colleagues about my priorities. I was the only person not staying onsite and turned down ‘drinks at the bar’ a couple of times to get back to city center to explore.
We had one big dinner out, for all of the conference attendees, and while I was excited to attend, I went to and from the dinner alone. I wanted to take a walk by the famous castle on my way to dinner and afterwards, knowing I had a long walk in the morning out to our meetings (you know, in the basement), I left at a reasonable hour to make my way home.
Now that the conference is over and everyone has returned safely home, I am so glad that I made the most of my time in Krakow. It really is a gem of Eastern Europe and one that I had been trying to visit for some time. I was able to put in full days ‘at the office’ while not sacrificing my personal priorities, and when it comes down to it, that’s really all you can hope for.