Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How This Works for Me: Alexander City, AL

Other travel bloggers out there have it easy.  They pick a destination based on a local attraction or the availability of things to do once they get there.  They stay where they want to and eat when and where they want to.  They have all day to see the sights.  Must be nice.

I don't pick my destination, I go where my customer is.  For this trip I am off to Alexander City, Alabama.  Never heard of it?  I'm not surprised.

I am 1/2 Alabamian on my dad's side and I still had to get a map to figure out where this city is.  It is in the triangle made up by the highways connecting Atlanta, GA, Montgomery, AL & Birmingham, AL. 

After flying into Birmingham (because I can go non-stop where Mongomery requires a connection), I expect an almost hour drive ahead of me that today includes a driving rain in the dark making visibility difficult.  Because I am driving less than 30 on a 60 mph highway, it takes me quite a bit longer than an hour.

Don't I look happy to be here?  Actually, I am just tired, it is late and this makes the 7th week in a row I have traveled.  When asked, I sometimes have difficulty remembering where I was last week.

Generally my hotels are of the generic variety (Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Holiday Inn Express, etc.) for price reasons.  I am spending someone else's money and I try to be conscious of that when I am making a choice.  I try to stay as close to my customer's office as possible but if I can save $20 a night and be a mile further away, I will do it.  I also try to watch for a hotel charging for parking or Internet and avoid those to keep the fees down. 

The hotel is usually fine, and just that.  There have been few exceptions on the better than fine end (Miami and D.C. stand out) and thankfully few on the less than fine end (Imperial, CA, Augusta, GA and Victoria, TX come to mind).

If the hotel offers free breakfast, I usually eat there.  Occasionally I will go get breakfast but we are talking about getting McDonald's, not anything exciting.  The continental breakfast hotels offer gets old and I usually have trouble stomaching the fake runny eggs.  Lately, I have started skipping breakfast in favor of a V8 in my room.

My company has a guideline of $30 per day for food.  I have heard of people making money on their per diem but we can't do that.  I once spent $8 total over 4 days and asked my boss if I could roll the excess over to a future trip.  He said no.   If I don't spend $30, I don't get the excess money to keep either. 

Even though my boss said no, I have never been questioned for going over, so I can't complain.  This doesn't happen often but I have gone over the $30 before.  Usually it evens out the next day when I spend less than $10.  But still, I try to be responsible, again it isn't my money. 

The problem with $30 is it means you mainly eat fast food.  Lunch at Wendy's will run nearly $9.  So free breakfast helps.  It also helps when my customer either pays for or provides lunch (this is a toss up and I usually don't know until the day I arrive what lunch will be...provided, out they pay for me, out I pay for me, or on my own).

In Alex City (as they call it), it is better than usual.  Lunch in usually consists of boxed lunch sandwiches and chips or pizza.  This time the mother of one of the employees caters very lovely lunches in a dining room with place mats, silverware and cloth napkins.  Small towns do have their advantages.

If I start getting close to the high end on my food for the day, I purchase the rest of my meals out of my own pocket.  I have been told that this is crazy (by people who aren't my boss) but I can't help it.  I have said it here already...this isn't my money.  If I am wasteful, I only hurt my coworkers and myself.  If I spent $100 on food every day, that is money that me and my coworkers can never get in a raise.  Someone I said that to still thought I was crazy - how do I know that money is passed on to my coworker?  I don't.  But I know if I spend it irresponsibly, it CAN'T be passed on.

I remember a definition I once heard for the word integrity:  It is what you do when no one is looking.  That is how I feel about spending money that belongs to my company.  It doesn't matter what I could get away with.  And I like to think that I have gained some trust from by boss over the years by being responsible with his money.  You know what they say...Karma is a bitch.

At my house, I have a literal reminder.  My dog Karma.  When people ask us what her breed is we tell them "mutt-faced squirrel dog".

I think that having my boss trust me is more important than staying in a fancy hotel.  Also, I get to plan all of my own travel - I pick everything:  flight (airline/times), hotel, car.  If I can't be trusted, that might change and let me say this:  I am not sure if I would continue to do this if someone else decided those things for me.  I don't mean this as a threat (my boss might read this), I mean it as a reality. 

I know others who travel for work who are required to fly evenings after all day at the office.  I don't have to do that.  I also don't fly home the last day after spending all day with my customer.  I consider the evenings my time.  I already worked the whole day so I don't think it is right for someone to expect me to travel on my own time.  Travel required for my job should be conducted during business hours.  I have chosen to travel at night before but it was my choice, not a requirement.

I also don't think I should be required to work 4-5 hours at the hotel every night after working and/or traveling all day.  I was talking to a consultant I have crossed paths with several times before and he asked what I was doing that night.  When I said, he replied, "You always seem to be doing something fun."  He told me he can't do that because while he is at the customer's office, his "other work" is piling up.  So is mine.

I spent 11 years doing what he is doing.  Going all day with the customer and grabbing fast food on the way to the hotel to work several more hours while some crime drama played on TV in the background.  I am over that, life is too short to live that way. 

Don't get me wrong, sometimes I work at the hotel, sometimes for several hours.  I always at least check email and voicemail and deal with things that have to be done.  But I have finally learned three things:

  1. Very little of that stuff can't wait.
  2. I need to let other people be accountable for their own jobs (passing on support questions customers send me to our technical support staff instead of answering them myself for example).
  3. I am only one person and I can't do everything.
More than that, I don't want to do everything any more.  My boss recently told me he was happy I was getting out and doing things at night on my trips.  He didn't complain about me not working enough.  I like to think it goes back to the trust issue.  He knows I will get the job done.  If I have to work at the hotel, at night or on a weekend, I do.  I think I am just better at figuring out what really has to be done and what can wait.

So now, I get out and do things but sometimes it is quite challenging.

The Sloss Furnaces is a National Historic Landmark in Birmingham.  Hours of operation are 10 am to 4 pm Tuesday - Saturday, Noon to 4 Sunday, closed Monday (the day I took this picture from the parking lot).

My most common trip involves me flying out on Monday afternoon, spending all day Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at my customer's office and flying home Friday morning.  This leaves me the evenings on Monday (depending on my flight) through Thursday, generally 6 pm until bedtime, to do whatever I am going to do.  When places aren't open during this time, it limits my choices.

Going to places like Alex City, population 15,000, adds additional challenges.  In my next post I will talk about what I did find to do and how I go about determining what my choices might be before I ever leave Dallas.

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