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My life as a consultant

Twelve Hours Is A Long Commute

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The Details
Name: Greg Wesson
Current Residence: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Occupation: Consultant
Hobby: Travel


Why Travel?

I never traveled much when I was younger. Other than day trips, the only trip I took as a kid was a 3-week road trip with my parents from Toronto to the east coast of Canada. I didn’t get on a plane for the first time until I was 16, and even then it was just an hour-long sightseeing trip in a 4-seat seaplane. During university, I only took one spring-break trip, myself and some friends drove from London, Ontario to Shawnee, Pennsylvania for a ski trip. My first commercial flight was when I was 25 for a business trip to Moncton, New Brunswick.

Travel sounded like something fun, but it was always something for later. There was never enough time or money. There was always something else that I needed to do. But then the world changed.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1999. My mother was 65 and had just been retired for 9 months when she died. At the time I was stuck in a job I hated, spending 50 to 60 hours a week doing tedious work for people I didn’t really like. I put myself in my mother’s place – imagined myself 35 years in the future, at 65 and newly retired. If I were diagnosed with cancer, would I be sitting there thinking about all those things that I had said, “next year, next year, next year?” I quit my job and decided that I wouldn’t put off those things that I wanted.

I realized that the things stopping me from traveling wasn’t the money or the time or any of the things I needed to do. It was that I was scared. Scared of putting myself out in an unfamiliar world.

I remember sitting in my office on a seemingly average Tuesday morning in September of 2001 when someone said, “an airplane hit the World Trade Center.” It was September 11th, 2001, and as the details of the day revealed themselves, I remember one main thought kept going through my head, “I would hate to die at work.” I thought to myself, as I sat watching the replies over and over on CNN, “what if that had been my office building?”

There is no time like the present. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. None of us knows if we have a tomorrow.

It was tough, booking my first big trip to South America. I almost backed out a few times, but I went through with it. At times, I felt stupid, the 32 year old backpacker. Isn’t backpacking for college kids? I certainly was actually stupid a few times, but it was also one of the most fun and most liberating experiences of my life. And as to backpacking being a college kid thing, most of the people I met on the road were my age or older.

I am not an extreme traveler. I have met people on my travels that do it month after month, year after year. I still am afraid sometimes, and still doubt that I have what it takes to get out there. Staying off the road, though, is not an option. Sometimes I get tired being on the road, but after being home for a few weeks, I start getting the hankering again. Its time to go to the bookstore, visit the travel section, and pick a lonely planet guide off the shelf.

Twelve Hours Is A Long Commute

I was standing at a urinal that, via the rubber urinal cake holder was informing me that I was in at Eppley Airfield, the world’s cleanest airport. The speaker above me cracked to life, “Attention passengers on American Airlines flight 4276 to Chicago, the inbound aircraft has not yet left Chicago. We expect that the plane should land at approximately 2 o’clock, and that it should take about 15 minutes to turn the flight around, so the flight should now be leaving at 2:15 P.M. There are thunderstorms to the west of O’Hare, and a number of flights in Chicago are delayed. For passengers who are connecting in Chicago, it is quite likely that your connecting flights are delayed, so you could still make your connecting flights.” An hour and ten minute delay, looks like it was going to be a long travel day.

Even before my mother died, I was already a seasoned business traveler. I have over the past 6 years worked for two “Big Five” consulting firms – Accenture and BearingPoint. The Big Five used to refer to the accounting and consulting firms Arthur Andersen, Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, the five largest professional service firms in the world. (Actually, when I first got in, it was the big six, as Price Waterhouse and Coopers Lybrand were separate firms at the time). Despite the fact that most of these accounting firms have split off their consulting units into separate companies, or sold them to competitors, or just fail to even exist anymore, the term is still widely used. But even if the companies don’t exist anymore or have morphed and changed names a number of times, the lifestyle that a Big Five Consultant has remained mainly unchanged. Unless you are really lucky and get a project in town, that lifestyle is one of constant travel.

Basically, my job is to temporarily go to companies and help them with specific projects in their call center and marketing departments. The projects can last from as short as a couple of weeks to as long as a year. The companies can be anywhere. Since 1997 (my first year at Accenture) I have spent at least a month in: Detroit, MI, USA; Montreal, QC, Canada; Denver, CO, USA; Columbus, OH, USA; San Antonio, TX, USA; St. Louis, MO, USA; San Francisco, CA, USA; Atlanta, GA, USA; and Las Vegas, NV, USA, in addition to my home town of Toronto, Ontario and my current location of Omaha, Nebraska, at Eppley Airfield, waiting for my flight to Chicago.

2006 03 NJ..t Plane.JPG

I was headed home on a Friday from Omaha to Toronto. The week started early on Monday morning, with a 6:46 A.M. flight out of Atlanta to Dallas, and then on to Omaha. After five days in the office and four nights at the Club House Inn and Suites, I headed back to Eppley Airfield to fly back (via Chicago) to Toronto. I was scheduled to land in Toronto at 5:55 P.M. All told, the flight from Omaha to Toronto, including the time spent in Chicago was scheduled to be 4 hours of gate to gate travel time. When you add the 20 minutes from the office in Omaha to the airport, plus showing up an hour before hand to clear security in Omaha, a half-hour to clear customs in Toronto and the 30 minute drive home from Toronto’s airport to my apartment, it would be six and a half hours door to door.

That’s pretty bad, but certainly not the worst I’ve had. Toronto to San Antonio was a one-stop, 6 hour ordeal, plus a couple of hours on either end for clearing security and customs. That was before September 11th. After September 11th, the time in airport has increased, making the usual hour I used to schedule for clearing security and customs has increased to 2 hours. Toronto to my apartment in San Ramon, California, outside of San Francisco used to take 8 hours door to door, and that was with a direct flight.

We finally got off the ground from Omaha at 2:30 Central time. Unfortunately when I landed in Chicago my flight to Toronto had already left, apparently not deterred by the weather that had delayed my Omaha-Chicago flight. The next flight to Toronto on America was scheduled to leave at 5:37 P.M., 2 hours and 10 minutes after my originally scheduled flight. I would now be arriving in Toronto at 8:00 P.M. At least I would miss most of rush hour. That would cut 10 to 15 minutes off my drive home. I went and sat at one of the airport restaurants, had some dinner and read my book. Being patient is one of the key attributes one needs when traveling every week.

So, too, is being flexible. My scheduled flight from Omaha to Toronto was the 3rd flight I had scheduled for this same day. Originally, I was flying from Atlanta to Toronto on that day as part of a massive routing from Toronto to Omaha, Omaha to Las Vegas, Las Vegas to Atlanta and Atlanta to Toronto. Two days before the outbound flight, my plans changed and instead of going to Omaha and Las Vegas, I was needed in Atlanta. So I booked new flights from Toronto to Atlanta and returning to Toronto. Then, after I arrived in Atlanta, it was clear I was actually needed in Omaha. So, change number three happened – Atlanta to Omaha followed by a flight from Omaha to Toronto. Certainly I think my skills in designing and installing call center systems is good, but my true skills lay in finding flights and hotels in short order. A fellow co-worker at BearingPoint said that our true “core competency” is not consulting, but rather is traveling. No one can plan a business trip and execute it quicker and with more aplomb than a Big Fiver.

No planning, however, could have helped me in Chicago. The 5:37 departure got pushed back and back and back. We changed gates 3 times. Finally, the plane left just before 9:00 P.M. central time.

We landed in Toronto after 11:00 P.M. I cleared Canadian customs, got into a cab and was home just before midnight Eastern time. I left the office in Omaha just after 11:30 central time (12:30 eastern time), so that means my original 6 and a half hour commute had almost doubled to near twelve hours. I sat down on my couch and popped open a cold beer. In twelve hours I had finished a book, completed the U.S.A. Today crossword puzzle and collected 1000 air miles on my American Airlines AAdvantage program, taking my total to 24,908 miles. That’s only 92 miles away from gaining a free flight from my hometown to Toronto to somewhere in Canada or the U.S., like say, Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, the world’s cleanest airport. That’s not a bad deal for 12 hours of my life, is it?

Posted by GregW 16:08 Archived in USA Tagged preparation business_travel travel_philosophy

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