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Balancing business travel with family life
By Susan Bowles, Special to Gannett
Remember those movies from the 1940s and '50s that showed Dad packing his suitcase, kissing the family good-bye and cheerfully leaving on business? Mom held down the home front, Dad earned money on the road, and everyone lived happily ever after. Except they didn't -- at least, not in the real world.

Jet lag, 14-plus hour days, a stressed-out spouse at home and cranky children who miss their traveling mom or dad mean frayed nerves and short tempers -- that's the reality for many of today's business travelers, and something has to give.

Luckily, it has. Although many companies tightened their travel policies during the recent economic downturn, they're once again realizing that employees are their best investments.

To build loyalty and guard against burnout and turnover, many businesses are offering ways to balance work and life among their traveling workers, says Joyce Gioia, president of The Herman Group in Greensboro, NC.

Here are some examples:

  • Some companies let employees take their spouses along on business travel. Some go even further, paying for accompanying spouses and children.

  • Some employers pay for extra phone calls so traveling workers can stay in touch with those back home.

  • Businesses are increasingly letting workers come back on Saturdays rather than Sundays. The earlier return means employees can have some family time before heading back to the office Monday morning.

The bottom line? Whether you're married or single, a parent or childless, you can balance business travel with the rest of your life. Here's a look at three professionals who do just that.

Joyce Gioia, president of The Herman Group, a North Carolina company that specializes in employee retention, future trends forecasting and workforce issues.

Gioia's travel schedule can be intense. Last fall, she traveled almost nonstop for 2 months. And while her three children are no longer home, flexibility remains critical if she's going to perform at her peak.

Her solution? Instead of booking evening flights when she goes on business, Gioia leaves earlier in the day. That way, she can get to her destination and relax before gearing up for the next day's duties.

"My favorite thing to do is order room service and sit on the bed and have a picnic and watch TV," she says. "I never get to watch TV at home."

Traveling late in the morning or early in the afternoon can mean savings for your company. That's because airfare for off-peak travel is usually less expensive - music to any boss's ear.

Sure, Gioia is president of her own company, so it's easier for her to build flexibility into her schedule. But her strategy can work for anyone, she says.

Naomi Schmuckler, human resources employee at a large, national company.

Schmuckler, a Maryland resident, spends 50 percent of her time traveling up and down the East Coast. And with two small children at home, balance is key.

"If I'm going to be gone at dinner time, then I try to stay home for breakfast," she says. "I do a lot of the normal bedtime things, but in the morning."

She also looks for ways to break up her travel schedule so she has as much family time as possible. If, for instance, a trip includes both 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. meetings, she'll split it over two days. That way, she can leave home later on the first day, make the 5 p.m. meeting, get up early the next morning for her 7 a.m. appointment, then return home.

And if she's going to a destination up to four hours away, she drives. "It's so much more flexible," she says. "And if something happens at home, I know I can get back."

Schmuckler has high praise for the balance her employer gives her. But she fought for it even before accepting her current position.

When interviewing for her job, she was very clear about her need for travel flexibility and asked specific questions: Could she devise her own travel schedule, or would the company dictate it? Could she work from home? Could she travel during working hours, or would she have wait until the workday was over?

"I asked them about every imaginable computation in flexibility," she says, then laughs. "I think I interviewed them a lot more than a lot of people do."

Gary Kushner, founder and president of Kushner & Co., a national employee benefits consulting and administrative company in Portage, MI.

Kushner's client base spans 33 states and three countries, so it's easy to live out of a suitcase. But that isn't what he or his family wanted.

So early on, Kushner and his wife decided his travel would benefit their three children, two of whom are now grown. Toward that end, the couple built family vacations into Dad's travel schedule.

It's a formula they still follow. Today, many of Kushner's business engagements fall on a Monday. Instead of flying solo that morning or the night before, he books a Saturday flight, and the family goes sightseeing. "You get to see a lot of the country that way."

It's a strategy employees throughout the United States are using. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, 18 percent of the combination business/pleasure trips in 2002 were by taken adults traveling with children.

To sell your company on a business/family travel trip, Kushner says, stress cost. Saturday airfare is cheaper than weekday travel. Offer to cover any extra expenses for meals and lodging. Don't expect the company to cover expenses for your family.

In other words, talk to your employer. If you want extra flexibility in your business travel schedule, be honest -- both with your bosses and with yourself.

"Why are you looking for flexibility?" Schmuckler asks. "Is it because you want to spend more time enjoying yourself or by having more balance, you'll be a better employee?"

If it's the latter, you're likely to benefit. After all, companies want happy, energetic employees.

"It's a win-win," says Kushner. "And I think there are a lot of these types of win-wins out there."


Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC. She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today, USATODAY.com, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post.