…Interim Article – Travel May Never Be the Same…
For the past twelve years, I have taken a cruise nearly every year. They have all been interesting adventures, involving travel in most areas of the world. There’s obviously been a lot of air travel, nearly all of which, while tiresome, was uneventful. Phoning home was a simple matter using my cell phone. I would also have constant contact with anyone in the world using the Internet from the cruise ship.
Comparing this travel with the travel I did while working may provide some insights into what was involved when doing business internationally forty-five years ago.
When I took my first trip around the world for GE, my boss called me into his office and asked me how much my ticket cost.
A strategic planner from the International Group and I had been asked to conduct studies in Taiwan, Thailand, Malta and Portugal, to determine whether a business strategy involving “beachhead” operations would be possible. Essentially, small operations to get GE’s foot in the door in countries where it might not otherwise be possible to build factories.
Off hand, I didn’t know how much the ticket cost, and had to get the ticket from my office to look.
My coach ticket cost just over $1,100, which was a princely sum at the time.
Today, such a trip would cost closer to $15,000.
Cost wasn’t the only difference when traveling overseas at that time.
Before leaving, I had to be certain my shots were current, for such things as tetanus and cholera. Visas had to be obtained for each country by either mailing or taking the passport to the country’s embassy. We would also be stopping in countries for a day or two to meet executives of GE subsidiaries such as COGENEL in Italy.
The trip would take four weeks and it would be difficult to make phone calls. I would write of course, but many of the letters and post cards wouldn’t arrive home until after I had returned.
Marion would drive me to the Albany airport where the plane would taxi to the door of the gate. No jetway. This became routine for the many trips I subsequently took over a four-year period while establishing joint ventures and facilities in some fourteen countries around the world.
For my first trip to Saudi Arabia, I needed a letter of invitation from Saudi Arabia and also a visa from the Saudi embassy.
On arriving in Saudi Arabia, my first stop was Al Khobar, on the Persian, or while in Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Gulf.
Saudi Arabia was still a poor country with the price of oil at $3 a barrel. The Al Khobar hotel was a three-story cinderblock building, where rooms were outfitted with an army-cot, desk, chair and a refrigerator with a bottle of Evian water.
The restaurant where I ate many of my meals for the next few days, was a bare room with nondescript tables and chairs. Not knowing how food was kept, I ate foods that were well cooked. Boiled eggs were the best bet for breakfast. However, I quickly learned to order a 6 minute egg since the cooks put the egg into cold water before bringing it to a boil. The worst that could happen would be to get a hardboiled egg.
This picture of an open air meat stall was from Cairo, but the scene was typical for that time in the Mideast.
My first joint venture was with a prominent family in Bahrain. It was necessary to have an audience with the Amir to obtain a charter for the new company. Bahrain was a newly independent country and had not yet established a companies act under which to form our new joint venture.
The dinner I describe in my book, Crisis in the Mideast, is based on dinners I had at our partner’s home. The gold silverware and gold trimmed glassware, the servings and the African native with deep scars on both cheeks and dressed as if from the Arabian nights, were all true.
Once the company was up and running, communications became an important issue.
There were no fax machines or cell phones, and international calling was difficult and very expensive. Even calling the US from a hotel in Europe would cost several dollars for a three-minute call.
Our plant would need drawings and other documents. Sending them by mail could take a month. Even airmail would take several days.
Our recourse was to use couriers to fly drawings and data from our office in Schenectady to Bahrain. Our first customer in Bahrain was the aluminum smelter that used several GE gas turbines to generate the power needed for turning bauxite into alumina. Our company in Bahrain needed the drawings for those particular units to be able to do the necessary service engineering.
By the time I had finished with this assignment, we, with the International Group, had established these specialized facilities in fourteen countries, including Australia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, The Netherlands, the UK, Italy, Spain, Singapore, South Africa, and Portugal.
Doing business internationally, before the advent of fax machines and cell phones, was far more difficult than today.
It will be interesting to see how travel and doing business internationally will change as the result of COVID-19. Relationships with China should change dramatically.
It may not be governments that erect walls between countries, as Kissinger suggested in his WSJ, op-ed. It may be ordinary people who fear being trapped on a cruise ship when the next pandemic erupts. And it may be ordinary people who fear being stranded in a foreign country when it closes its air space.
Decisions made by ordinary people could determine future travel and business relationships.