Spare Keys & Spare Tires: Road Warriors Share Lessons

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Darl McLean's first rule of travel: "I always carry a spare key." Sure, it's simple, but one this credit union industry road warrior says could save him and his clients a lot of hassle.

McLean, who has a home office in Sault Ste. Marie and spends about 40% to 50% of his time traveling as senior consultant with the Michigan Credit Union League, said he is often on a tight schedule. Sometimes, he'll drive three to four hours to visit the same number of credit unions before heading to his next destination.

That was until one day a few years ago when the key snapped as he was getting into his company car-setting him and all of his clients back half a day. That experience helped him establish a back-up plan.

For the most part, McLean and other fellow consultants who credit union-, meeting- and conference-hop as part of their jobs, said they don't mind living out of suitcases, toting laptops or climbing into unfamiliar beds for the sake of their work.

"Travel just goes with the territory," said Fred Johnson, CEO at CUES, Madison, Wis. "My job is running CUES and CUES is everywhere but in Madison, Wisconsin."

Although being on the road can be drudgery, many of those interviewed by The Credit Union Journal said there are also perks. For example, Kate McPike, senior training consultant with the California Credit Union League in Rancho Cucamonga, travels with Southwest Airlines and stays in Marriott hotels so much that she earns free airfare and four nights of accommodations for her and a companion every year. Her favorite vacation destination: New Orleans.

"Every time I get on a plane, I think this is just one more round trip towards a free ticket," she said. "That's what motivates me."

Johnson said he turned one business trip to London into a family vacation. "I take my wife with me a couple times a year and add vacation time onto my trip," he added. "But to be honest, anybody who travels knows that when you are working, it's really a load to have somebody with you."

McPike, who had similar travel responsibilities for the Louisiana league (mostly by car) prior to taking her current position more than two years ago, said she loves the work despite the minor inconveniences, the airport delays and the downtime. Among her duties are to conduct education seminars for the league, including a recent assignment to create a program on coaching, development and mentoring. "I spend about 50% of my time in the air," she said. "When I get home, I put my suitcase in the other bedroom and start packing again."

One of McPike's biggest challenges of traveling, besides missing her cat, is healthy eating. "After traveling and working all day, I think I really deserve to eat this hamburger and french fries," she said. "And this is not good."

McLean said he has similar battles with food and admitted putting on some weight when he first took his job with the Michigan league in 1995. "It's a lot easier to grab fast food than anything else when you're pressed for time," he said. These days, McLean said, he makes a point to eat "salads" and stay in hotels that offer exercise facilities. "And I try to get out and walk in the evenings."

Paul Lucas, an independent credit union consultant based in Fairfax, Va., said he typically stays at his destinations an extra night so he can relax, enjoy the local scenery and work at a steady pace. "My wife travels a lot as well. She'll sometimes fly to Hawaii for a meeting and turn right around and come home. To me, that's just crazy."

While he's not picky about which airline he uses and thinks "all airports are the same," Lucas does prefer non-stop flights and an aisle seat. "I know that a lot of people must fly first class, but I just get the cheapest rate for my client."

Johnson, who has been traveling for CUES for 15 years, said he prefers having a little more legroom and is willing to earn it. "I think road warriors live for upgrades," he said, adding that he has become well-versed in which airlines offer the best frequent flier bonuses and the least amount of downtime. "One airline I was using was going through Chicago's O'Hare Airport and costing me too much time," he said. "Everywhere I went depended on a link-up there." He now tries to transfer in either Detroit or Minneapolis.

Johnson said he would like to see airports extend some additional courtesies to frequent travelers. "If we could get the airports to put us through some sort of scrutiny so we wouldn't have to stand in line like everybody else, that would be nice," Johnson said, likening it to CUs that reward their best members.

None of the road warriors said they do serious work in the air.

"I take a book on the plane and read," McPike said. "Only personal stuff. I don't do any work when I'm in the air."

Johnson said he uses the time to catch up on his business reading. Lucas said he'd do anything but talk to other people. "You start talking to somebody and the next thing they're asking is what do you do," he said. "I hate talking to people. I'd rather use the time to read or sleep."

And McLean, who has to concentrate on driving, said he listens to everything from talk radio to music. A former CU manager who rarely left his office, McLean said has no complaints except for when he's listening to something interesting and loses the signal.

"The difference between being in an office and doing this is that I get to interact with a lot of different people."

He said he likes the variety of his job that includes helping CUs set up new programs and implement new regulations. "It's especially exciting to see the growth of some of these smaller credit unions."

Admittedly, not all these road warriors' trips have been smooth sailing. Johnson noted he has the fingernail scars to prove it. "Early on in my job, I was on this turbo prop airplane that was making its last flight," he said. "I sat down next to this woman who was about 20 or 21 years old and noticed that she started to perspire."

Turns out, the woman was terrified of flying and Johnson, who had "flown a lot as a paratrooper and crashed a few" told her so, which only heightened her fear. He said the woman chanted "oh my God, oh my God" as the plane took off. "Then I felt this extreme pain in my left arm," he said. "Instead of grabbing the armrest, she grabbed me and just stared. It looked like her eyes were about to pop out of her head."

Once the plane settled, he said he rolled up his sleeve to reveal a fingernail row of puncture wounds. The woman seemed to have calmed down and apologized. "Then we hit the Rockies and started bouncing around," he recalled.

Another time, Johnson turned on his computer and it included an audio recording from his then four-year-old son saying, "I miss you, daddy. When are you coming home, daddy?" Apparently, his female seatmate had just left her newborn baby for the first time.

"She started bawling," he said, which triggered a crowd around the seat. "Before I knew it, several women around me were crying."

McPike said she had an experience that she hopes never to repeat and will avoid "stand by" at all costs because of it.

"I was coming back from Oakland with my boss after a training session and realized that we could get on an earlier flight but had to go stand by," she said. That meant taking whatever seat was available. In this case, it was right next to a guy who stunk to high heaven. "I saw him coming down the aisle. He had dreadlocks with synthetic purple and yellow and pink ribbon woven in. It was right around Halloween and he looked hung over."

The man was famous funk musician George Clinton, who sat down and passed out for much of the flight. "When he woke up, some people were getting his autograph," she said, adding that all she wanted to do was get away from the smell. "It was the worst flight I have ever been on."

The road warriors agree that technology has changed the way business is conducted, but doubt it'll affect their travel plans.

"People still want that face-to-face training," McPike said, adding that her only complaint is having to "schlep around a laptop and an LCD projector," both tools of her trade.

Johnson said while technology has made communication more efficient, it's also a pain. "I used to say the demise of spare time came when the facsimile machines were introduced. Now, with computers, my folks will send an e-mail and want me to respond right away."

McLean agreed that technology has decreased the amount of paper he has to carry, but said his car still looks like a rolling office. "If I had to give somebody a ride in it right now, I'd have to shift a few things around to make room."

Now, if you will excuse them, these road warriors have travel arrangements to make. "As soon as I'm done talking to you, I am heading out to Alpena," McLean said.

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