A tiny year of business travel, 2019 in review
Revisiting pre-COVID business travel as we look ahead to the global economy reopening. Will it ever be as much fun again?
Business travel ground to a halt in 2020, costing airlines, hotels, and conference organizers billions of dollars. Let's not forget the hundreds of thousands of people working in the hospitality industry who lost their livelihood. It was a tough year.
If you love travel you know the joy of discovering new places, engaging with different cultures, and experiencing new tastes and smells. Combine this with business, and you have one incredibly rewarding experience in front of you.
With events canceled and in-person meetings moving online, 2020 was a difficult year for those of us working outside sales and field marketing. For that matter, any marketer who like me believes interacting with (prospective) customers is critical to our success. With vaccination programs well underway in 2021, the good news is that events and in-person business meetings are starting to return.
Live events are already taking place, and predictions that people will be reluctant to return to close contact meetings and events are (imho) misplaced. If you worked from home in 2020, just wait to see how it feels to be in an office with colleagues again. The sense of human connection, professional collaboration, and joint mission is hard to explain.
Reminiscing about business travel and looking to the year ahead, the twelve months of 2019 were the most rewarding of my career. I flew 115,000 miles for business, many thousands more for leisure, meet hundreds of customers, and made new friends in dozens of cities on three continents. We can easily add another 10,000 miles spent in trains and automobiles.
If you are looking forward to the return of trade shows, business networking, and events, I hope my 2019 travel year in review rekindles excitement about traveling to meet new people, forge new alliances, and close new deals. Let's start with Australia.
Tiny Travel – Brisbane, Australia
Month: April | Route: SJC-LAX-BNE-LAX-SJC | Miles: 14,938 (x2) = 29,876
2019 kicked off with two trips to my homeland in April. One was for my then employer's annual product development week, and the other to onboard a new marketing hire.
Let's start with some history. From 2015 to 2020 I had the privilege of leading the marketing team responsible for the world's most popular open source rich text editor, TinyMCE. I first used TinyMCE in 2006 in the Joomla! CMS, and have used it ever since.
That TinyMCE can turn a plain vanilla HTML 'textarea' into a fully functioning "word processor in a browser" looked like magic back then and still does today. I have the deepest respect for the founding developers of the TinyMCE project, Johan "Spocke" Sorlin and Joakim Lindkvist. Very fine humans.
In this post I will share some of my experiences marketing the TinyMCE editor in 2019. Let's start with trips to TinyMCE's development hub in Brisbane, Australia.
Product Week was an annual event held by Tiny Technologies (the company sponsoring TinyMCE) in Brisbane, Australia. It helped bring teams on three continents together to build innovative ideas on the TinyMCE core editor. We all met colleagues we would otherwise never meet in-person.
Beyond the business, a visit to Australia is not complete without discussing the food. Australia has a long history of vocational learning, and by the time a chef is cooking your breakfast they've likely been to trade school, apprenticed in at least one kitchen, and will have accumulated nearly a decade's experience. Even short order cooks are approaching chef status Down Under.
Which is why you can get breakfast for $15 that belongs in an American fine dining restaurant, for twice that cost. When in Brisbane, the trip is not complete without visiting The Gunshop Cafe in West End. Still on the menu today (April 2021) is an amazing pork, apple & sage sausage, bubble & squeak rosti, sauerkraut, honey mustard dressing, and a poached egg. It's much better than my lousy photography suggests.
New Hire Onboarding
After returning from Product Week in early April, two weeks later I was again on a plane back to Australia to onboard a key marketing hire. She went on to lead the marketing team, which is a good sign that we got the hire right.
No more food pictures on this trip, the sausage should be enough ... Next stop, Belguim for moules frites.
HCL Engage – Brussels, Belgium
Month: May | Route: SJC-ATL-BRU-ATL-SJC | Miles: 13,084
On my return to the Bay Area from Australia, I immediately jumped a flight to Seattle, Washington to connect with a friend attending a trade show. An Australia-based CEO of a globally recognized and recently acquired reliability engineering firm, his time is limited and making that trip was an easy decision.
Within the week of landing back in America after the Aussie onboarding trip, I was on a plane to Belgium to speak at a conference. We were sponsoring a user group event supporting one of the IBM collaboration solutions bought by HCL Software the prior year.
Integral to my marketing philosophy is community engagement. Either in the communities that form around companies and their products, or literally in the community of the customers we serve. This is much more than a marketing tactic, it's a belief that companies must first be of service.
The event, Engage, is one of the best user group conferences I ever attended. Known for holding conferences in interesting venues, I would participate again even without having any business to conduct. The community around HCL solutions like Notes/Domino, Connections, DX is strong, vibrant, and very committed. It's always about the people.
Engage 2019 took place at Autoworld, a car museum, and as a Formula 1 fan I had the time of my life. The venue was great, my presentation was well received, and we strengthened our relationship with HCL's leadership.
A colleague, Fredrik Danielsson, who I met in-person for the first time on this trip, and I stayed in the European quarter of Brussles. The area is very walkable, green spaces are plentiful, architecture inspiring, and the food is excellent. In fact, the best toastie I've ever eaten can be found at OR Café (Place Jourdan 13a, 1040 Etterbeek).
I would have the good fortune of closing the year marketing TinyMCE with Fredrik in Paris, France. But before we get that story, let's talk cars.
It would have been remiss of me to not take a photo of this 1984-1996 Ferrari Testarossa. A 12 cylinder, 384 breakhorsepower, rear wheel drive, the vehicle reached at top speed of 290 km/hr (180 miles/hr).
For F1 fans out there, Autoworld even had on display a Renault R28. Built for the 2008 season, it was driven by Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet Jr. Weighing in at only 605kg (1,333 lbs), it's engine delivered a staggering 700 brakehorsepower.
One month later I would be back in Europe, for all the wrong reasons.
Month: June | Route: SJC-DTW-AMS-DRS-AMS-DTW-SJC* | Miles: 12,720
The hotel front desk agent proudly told me that the internet speed was fast. The property was newly constructed and not located near any landmarks or restaurants of note, which was fine by me. I like walking cities as a first time visitor, it helps me get a feel for the place, the culture, how people interact. A hotel a little out of the way is not only less expensive, I also get to explore the city. I was in Dresden, Germany for a meeting, and a fast, stable internet connection was exactly what I needed.
Traveling from San Jose, California, to Dresden isn't an ideal experience. Layovers in Atlanta and Amsterdam are made more bearable by excellent Delta and KLM lounges, with the latter offering a very welcome shower and good coffee on arrival at Schiphol. Arriving at the Hotel Indigo Dresden Wettiner Platz, the journey door-to-door is about 24 hours. As we'll see soon enough, flying United out of SFO to Frankfurt would was the smarter move.
My second trip to Europe for the year, the purpose of the visit was business with a German software company. The VP Sales wanted another body in the meeting. Smart move as it's best to not take significant deal meetings solo.
If you work in the information technology industry you can likely guess which firm we were meeting. You might also be wondering why the meeting was in eastern Germany, in a region still showing the scars of the cold war. I checked multiple times with the VP that we were in fact meeting in Dresden. Yes, confirmed.
Except the meeting was in a town near Frankfurt. The city with a direct ~11 hour flight on United / Lufthansa.
* So, the actual route was: SJC-DTW-AMS-DRS-FRA-AMS-LAX-SJC.
The upside is that I fell in love with German hospitality, the people, and their sense of humor. I look forward to returning to eastern Germany and exploring sometime soon.
If you've not been to Germany, their breakfasts are epic. The breakfast at the Hotel Indigo Dresden is on point. Amazing bread, meats, cheeses, salmon, and an omelette. I could—and should—have stayed there for a few days. I highly recommend the property. Rooms are well appointed, food is good, and the reception staff are professional, while speaking impeccable English. My only regret was not visiting Prague in the Czech Republic: it's only 90-minutes by car.
OSCON – Portland, Oregon
Month: July | Route: SJC-PDX-SJC | Miles: 1,138
Two weeks after returning to the Bay Area from The Dresden Experience, the team headed off to OSCON in Portland, Oregon. Organized by O'Reilly Media, OSCON is an open source conference, primarily focused on DevOps and back-end architecture. A front-end library wasn't an ideal fit, but we were learning about the events that would move the dial for the business and there were many businesses in attendance we wanted to connect with.
After the Dresden drip, OSCON was a relatively painless experience. I stayed at The Duniway downtown with a colleague. The food at Jackrabbit PDX* is outstanding and it was good to be a mere elevator ride away.
* At the time of writing (April, 2021), like much of downtown Portland, Jackrabbit remains closed. Hoping it re-opens soon.
JoomlaDay! – Brisbane, Australia
Month: August | Route: SJC-LAX-SYD-BNE-LAX-SJC | Miles: 16,530
Third trip to Australia for the year, this time to attend the JoomlaDay! Australia conference where we were the major sponsor. Although the event was a bust, I have no regrets backing another community event where TinyMCE is a core component of the content creation experience. I also used the opportunity to reconnect with the new marketing hire and check-in IRL. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
HCL Social Connections – Munich, Germany
Month: September | Route: SFO-FRA-MUC-FRA-SFO | Miles: 11,732
"It's the Tiny guys ..!" exclaimed one of HCL's lead product managers across the lobby of the Novum Hotel München am Hauptbahnhof. A colleague and I were staying at the Aloft Munich, directly opposite but across from the Hauptbahnhof, and we were waiting at the Novum for our COO.
Back in Germany for the second time this year, and the third in Europe for 2019, I arrived in Munich via Frankfurt on solid flights with United and Lufthansa. Everything ran on time, and their respective teams were professional and courteous. I have status with both United and Delta, which means the airline's lounge is well used. It's a blessing for a frequent traveler, and the road would be a little harder without the benefit of a shower and espresso.
The flight into Munich arrived at the same time as a colleague from Australia, and we were in this magnificent city for another HCL user group. This time it was Social Connections. Our commitment to the HCL contract was strong and we sponsored many of their user group events. For this event we backed a dinner for speakers, and papered the event with some old school swag. Old school for an event focused on digital collaboration solutions, but sometimes sharing an idea on paper is the right thing. They were well used.
Ultimately, I liked these events because we got direct access to HCL's leadership, had an opportunity to discuss product roadmap, and often proactively solved customer challenges directly with the customer.
I regret not allowing personal time to travel on the European trips in 2019. My itinerary was pretty much get in, do the work, and get out. There's a risk that we spend too much time inside a conference center, and not with the locals.
HCL DX Inspire – Raleigh NC
Month: October | Route: SFO-RDU-SFO | Miles: 4,780
Back in the United States after Social Connections, I had two weeks to catch up on work and then head off to another HCL event. This time we were in Raleigh, North Carolina for HCL DX Inspire.
Unlike the other two HCL events focused on workplace collaboration and sharing, Inspire was focused their digital experience solution. Inspire was a small, well-run event that (again) reinforced Tiny's commitment to the HCL relationship.
On the swag side it was yo-yo time. Amazing how many people see a yo-yo and immediately re-live their childhood. I guess we're talking about folks of a certain generation. All good fun.
HCL CollabSphere – Boston MA
Month: October | Route: SFO-BOS-SFO | Miles: 5,400
Two weeks after returning to the Bay Area from North Carolina I turned my attention back east, this time toward Boston for the HCL CollabSphere. The event is a three-day conference focused on HCL's B2B application and Digital Solutions technologies. It was a good event with a keynote session from their newly appointed head of global marketing for HCL Software Andy Bossley.
Andy delivered a standout presentation about the future of the HCL portfolio from a marketing perspective. I was impressed with the rebrand/relaunch announced at the Social Connections conference the month prior, and said as much at the time to HCL's leadership (shoutout to Richard Jefts). My opinion is not changed.
DeveloperWeek – Austin TX
Month: November | Route: SJC-LAX-AUS-SLC-SJC | Miles: 3,201
Austin, Texas. One of the great cities of the world. Paris, France or Sydney, Australia it isn't, but it has an amazing music culture, great food, and of course BBQ. I love Austin and if I hadn't already moved my family across the world from Australia to the United States, I have a feeling I'd have made the move to Austin many years ago. Certainly before Californians "discovered" this music capital.
Pivoting away from the HCL relationship for the next two months I was back marketing the open source side of the TinyMCE house. We were sponsoring the DeveloperWeek Austin conference, and I had a lightning talk to deliver about monetizing open source. It was a popular topic.
Standing room only, it was a fun talk about a subject that I hold close to my heart. Modern software stacks are built on open source software, and finding a way to move from community to commercialization is critical for the health of the ecosystem.
The event delivered some good contacts and I was able to spend some time with a colleague who had been very supportive during my time at Tiny. It was the last trip we would make together, as I would soon be approached by a managed services infrastructure firm looking to make a mark in the world of agribusiness.
SaaS North – Ottawa Canada
Month: November | Route: SJC-DTW-YOW-DTW-SEA-SJC | Miles: 5,554
Who holds a conference in North America across Thanksgiving? Canadians apparently. I was at SaaS North in Ottawa, Canada. This one was a mistake. The conference was very well run, but attendance missed projections by some margin. In simple terms we didn't have enough good conversations. I rolled snake eyes on the bet and burnt Tiny goodwill in the process.
dotJS – Paris, France
Month: December | Route: SFO-CDG-LAX-SJC | Miles: 11,528
Let's round out the year with some food poisoning, great walks, and hanging with TinyMCE co-founder Joakim Lindkvist, and Tiny's head of UI/UX Fredrik Danielsson.
Joakim and Fredrik kindly stepped away from their day-to-day work in Sweden, and we met in Paris for the event. What a time we had.
One of my favorite moments from the event was Joakim's response to the pop-up banner at our booth. Initially he was dubious, raising an eyebrow about breaking the word "developers" onto separate lines.
My response, "just wait and see what happens."
After the hundredth person paused momentarily to make sense of the sign as they walked past our booth, giving me enough of an opening to say hi and ask whether they were enjoying the conference, Joakim looked at me and said, "that's genius."
One of the primary functions of marketing is to capture attention. If I can slow down a person just long enough to start a chat and to learn about their software development challenges, my work is done. (Ok, not really done, but I hope you take my point.)
Being told that your marketing work is on point by the person who built the most successful open source text editor in the world, is validation of the crazy ideas. Like I said, a career highlight from a person I respect greatly.
I was appropriately brought back down to earth by food poisoning thanks to steak tartare. Day two of the conference was tough. One hour sleep, borked metabolism, and a full day standing at a booth, and not a sofa in sight. But we got it done, had a great show, and expanded the TinyMCE brand in Europe.
With dotJS 2019 behind us, we had a day in Paris to discuss marketing TinyMCE in 2020 and beyond. We walked and talked our way across Paris. Visited a few sights, ate some great food, and plotted taking on our closest competitor in the year ahead. I will leave you where I started: a really bad photo of great food.
Bring on 2021/2022 business travel
Little did I know that as dotJS concluded and I said farewell to Joakim and Fredrik at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I'd soon move on from the firm, and that inside three months the economy would be locked down by a worldwide pandemic.
I read in the New York Times, that the E.U. is will let vaccinated U.S. tourists visit this summer. As travel returns, and we accept the biological risks that are always with us, I wish you a safe return to business travel. It is one of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of executive life.