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As the FT’s aerospace correspondent in the 1990s, I travelled to Toulouse at least five times. Yet I never went into the city. I have no idea what it looks like. I used to go there to visit Airbus, whose headquarters were near the airport. I would arrive in the morning, conduct my interviews, visit the factories and go home the same day.
I had more family responsibilities then. I also hadn’t mastered the art of carving leisure time out of my business travel.
It is a shame to endure the privations of flying — exhaustion, dehydration, jet lag after a long-haul trip — and not explore the places you fly to. These are cities that you might never see again.
The key to becoming a tourist on a business trip, without the company finance department objecting, is the Saturday night discount. If your journey takes in a Saturday, your flight is usually cheaper, sometimes dramatically so. The reduction will often pay for an extra hotel night or two.
Taking flights to New York on a Saturday, giving me a Sunday there, has, over the years, provided me with an extensive Manhattan art education: MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection and my favourite, the Neue Galerie.
I have had the odd day off in Hong Kong too, but a visit this month included FT duties on both sides of the weekend, giving me a full two days free — and what a difference that made. This was my seventh visit to Hong Kong. I have travelled on the Star Ferry between Hong Kong island and Kowloon, and up to the Peak, but, until this free weekend, I hadn’t appreciated the joys of Hong Kong hiking.
The walk from Quarry Bay, in the heart of urban Hong Kong on the north side of the island, to the sandy beach at Repulse Bay in the south has an uphill stretch but is entirely manageable, and the dense tree-studded views to the sea are magnificent. The group I was with suggested a swim from Repulse Bay to Middle Island — about 20 minutes through calm, warm water. My only apprehension came when our experienced and sporty leader told us, as we came to a solid yellow barrier in the sea, that we now had to clamber over the shark net.
Anyway, I survived to write this column, and to chat to two business people while eating at the Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon that evening. One was working for a company that makes children’s building toys that are assembled from basic architectural drawings. The other was making finger rings that connect remotely to your phone, so that you can use your hand as a receiver without taking your mobile out of your pocket. I passed on the tip that London, currently suffering an epidemic of phone-snatching by thieves on mopeds, might be a promising market.
As well as a cable car ride up to the Big Buddha and Po Lin monastery on Lantau Island the next day, the weekend also provided time to read. I downloaded Dear Hong Kong, an anguished memoir by Xu Xi, a novelist with a pessimistic view of Hong Kong’s political and cultural future.
The advantage of adding a mini-break to a work trip is that it makes you a better business traveller. Every glimpse of the world outside offices provides context and a broader view.
Not that offices and meeting rooms are to be sneered at. A business trip enables you to meet and talk to local people about their work, their lives, their hopes and fears. Add some free-time adventures and you have the perfect combination.
In accordance with my public-transport-first philosophy, I took Hong Kong’s superb MTR trains whenever I could, both while working and exploring. People moan about the stress and fatigue of business travel. But as I looked at the Hong Kong families around me on the subway, enjoying their weekend out after several days of typhoon weather, I made a mental note not to forget how lucky I have been to travel this way.
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