How travel (yes, even business travel) can make you a better marketer

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Three steps to easing the pain and boosting the productivity of time in transit

I’ve noticed that businesspeople are once again opting to fly rather than rely on Skype and conference calls. The Global Business Traveler’s Association (GBTS) estimates a final spending increase of 12.5% in 2014, marking a significant growth for the first time in years.

Maybe so, but can business travel ever be pain-free, let alone productive? I think it can. In fact, I think the clever ones among us can use the travel experience to become better marketers.

Consider the following opportunities:

1. View public spaces as ethnographic petri dishes. On a recent flight, I watched as a character in the film "Boyhood" rants about our addiction to constant stimulus from our devices. "It's like everyone is stuck in this in-between state," says young Mason. "Not really experiencing anything."

That’s how I feel when I look at my fellow travelers immersed in their devices. If they only looked up, they would find a treasure trove of insights around them.

They would observe humanity everywhere, played out in small, theatrical scenes. They would see, as I did, the little girl who screamed her lungs out as she watched her beloved pink suitcase embroidered with pretty flowers disappear into the X-ray machine. They would see people milling about, blocking the way of others, as they stared helplessly at the screens waiting for the airline to post their gate numbers (as I did last week).

Hidden inside each of these observations is an unmet need that could be satisfied by the right idea. A pet care brand, for example, could create a positive experience (and memory) by sponsoring a funny cat video playing on a screen adjacent to the Flight Information Display System. This one by Freshpet would work really well. And the beauty of the video is that it doesn’t even need sound!

2. Use liminal spaces to free your mind. A liminal space ("limens" in Latin means "threshold’) is a place of transition, of waiting, of not knowing exactly what’s next. It’s disruptive and uncomfortable: a state that can foster growth and new perspectives. If you let it, it may help you see the world and your problems with fresh eyes.

Airport lounges are the ultimate physical manifestation of liminal spaces. You are literally in transition, waiting. You know your ultimate travel destination, but you don’t know when the plane will take off (or, if you’re honest with yourself, whether it will at all). Your mind wanders as you sit around overhearing conversations. All this is fertile ground for an epiphany or (its lesser cousin) an idea. As you watch the couple next to you staring romantically into their machines, you suddenly envision a message from Revlon as part of its new "Love Is On" campaign, reminding lovers to take advantage of their forced time together and look into each others eyes instead.

Think about the last time you had an idea. It probably didn’t happen when you were alone, staring at a computer screen.

3. Translate travel time into long stretches of uninterrupted work time. If you have not yet done so, set aside 18 minutes to watch Jason Fried’s TED Talk on how work doesn’t get done in the office. Jason posits that most people — particularly creative thinkers, which we all hope to be — need long stretches of uninterrupted time to think deeply. When you are interrupted, you get pulled back in your thought process and must start from the beginning.

How often does this happen? If you sit in a cubicle, the answer may be every day. A global research study conducted by Ipsos and Steelcase revealed that 85% of those surveyed are dissatisfied with the open plan because it hinders their ability to concentrate and 31% leave the office to get work done.

So consider the hours you spend traveling for your job — when no one is pestering you and you’re not pulled in a million different directions — as offering you the gift of time. Heck: if you plan well, you might even finish a first draft of a deck en route. Here’s how to do it:?

1. Start thinking about your key points in the limo on the way to the airport. Make notes on your smartphone’s trusty Notes app. Or write yourself an email (i.e., the old school new school method).

2. While in the guest lounge, clean up and transfer your notes to PowerPoint. Now you’re all set for the flight.

3. Once the plane takes off, take out your laptop and devote 90 uninterrupted minutes to serious work. Resist the Wi-Fi!

So there you have it: the three-step recipe for a productive business trip. A little ethnographic research for insights; liminal space to get your creative juices flowing; and some quiet, uninterrupted time to bring it home.

And all this before you even reach your destination!

I recognize that a lot of this lies in adopting the right attitude, but think of it this way: If all my observations are true, and you have to do the work anyway, why not turn a lot of "down time" into something that makes you smarter and gives you more "me time" upon arrival?

Archana Kumar is Chief Strategy Officer with MediaCom USA.

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