Tales From The Road
"I envy you, Kim! You get to travel, eat in great restaurants, fly to fun places, stay in great hotels. I bet you love being a road warrior,” says a friend of mine.
“Yes, I do!” I reply.
In the back of my mind, though, I’m thinking about the night before when, after a five-hour plane delay, the rental car agent told me I had no reservation. Or, recently checking into my hotel, tired, hungry and ready to fall into bed, and pulling back the covers to find the man-hairs of the previous guest all over my sheets.
If that’s not living the dream, what is?
Suppliers are never surprised by these naïve travel envies that most often come from our customers who live and work in the same area and don’t often get the opportunity to travel for business. They see the life of a salesperson as full of adventure and meeting new people. Well, we do meet some very interesting people, but most well-traveled businesspeople and supplier reps can tell you tales that’ll send shivers down your spine or scare the daylights out of you. Waking up in a minivan in Mexico? Backing a company RV into a ditch? Experiencing the sounds of “ladies of the night?” Yeah, that’s living the dream alright.
Years ago, I wrote a similar article for this magazine that recounted a few of my industry friends’ stories, both funny and horrifying. Some of the sagas that follow will ring true for many business travelers and will open others’ eyes to the not uncommon experiences we road warriors know oh so well.
One night I was coming home on a very delayed flight. Everyone was tired and couldn’t wait to get their bags and head home. It was a plane where you waited jet-side for your luggage to arrive. People were pushing and shoving to get their luggage and I saw a gentleman pick up my bag. I rushed to it and told him that he had picked up my bag by mistake and tried to take it from him. He assured me the bag was his; I assured him it was not. He started walking off with my bag as I followed behind him. Finally, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Well good luck explaining my dirty lingerie to your wife!” He turned and with a look of horror on his face said, “You’re sure this is your bag?” “Pretty sure!” I replied. “That pink luggage tag with my name on it is a dead giveaway.” He shook his head, handed my bag over and headed back down the jetway to find his own bag.
In the early ’90s, I scheduled an appointment with an El Paso, Texas, distributor whose U.S. office turned out to be an abandoned warehouse on the shady side of town. To my surprise, a very attractive and immaculately dressed woman greeted me in halting English. She told me our meeting would be held at their main office outside of Juarez, Mexico. She radioed her compadres and 30 minutes later, an old, worn minivan pulled up. The driver instructed me to load my catalogs and samples in the minivan and off we went. An hour later, we arrived at the company’s Mexico office. Our meeting began with lunch and I had planned to begin my presentation immediately afterwards. Shockingly, the owner informed me they were going to take a siesta first. I waited in their office for about two hours for the sales team to awaken and then proceeded to give them an hour-long presentation that was interpreted in Spanish. At this point, I was thinking they were going to load me up in the minivan and take me back to El Paso, but they said they wanted to stay in Mexico for dinner. Little did I know, dinner would involve a night of heavy drinking and karaoke in some of the shadiest parts of Juarez. This was before cell phones, so I knew I was stuck. I had no way of returning across the border until they were ready to drive me back. I ended up sleeping in the minivan overnight while they continued to party all night long.
The next day I assumed I was going to be driven back to El Paso. I was wrong. They took me to meet with another sales office even further into Mexico. I was still in the same outfit I had worn into their office the day before. I didn’t even have a toothbrush!
Another long day of lunch, siestas and a product presentation led into another night of barhopping. Thoughts of human trafficking began to weigh heavily on my mind as I kept thinking that no one even knew where I was and there was no way to contact anyone to let them know all my personal belongings were still in my hotel room in El Paso. I spent a second night in the minivan.
After a 48-hour debacle, they finally drove me back to the warehouse in El Paso. I had missed my other scheduled appointments in El Paso, but I jumped out of the minivan, kissed the ground, checked out of my hotel and took an early flight home.
I was grumbling to my husband about having to pack for back-to-back sales meetings and the fact that shoes took up so much space in my bag, when he quietly reminded me that most people would welcome the chance to travel internationally. I was headed to Toronto the next morning for a supplier sales meeting and to Utah a few days later. Rolling my eyes just a little, I thanked him for his wisdom and finished my packing.
My flight to Toronto was cancelled but I made it onto another airline, arriving to my destination tired and hungry sometime after midnight. A few days later, I arrived at the airport ready to continue my journey to Utah via a connecting flight in Minneapolis. I breezed through customs and made it to the boarding area, only to find my flight was delayed. The boarding area was freezing cold and I regretted packing my jacket in my suitcase. By the time the trip was over, I would regret letting that suitcase go. My delayed flight finally took off and landed in Minneapolis where I learned my flight to Utah had left already. Huh?
The airline put me up at the airport hotel for the night. It was a charming place that had a restaurant, but it was closed. I had no luggage, no change of clothes, no toiletries and no jacket, and now, no supper. The attendant at the desk listened to my sad story and made a grand gesture of handing me a pouch that contained a toothbrush, a doll’s-house-size tube of toothpaste, a black comb and an eye mask.
I spent the night tossing and turning, worrying that I would not make it to my Utah meeting in time—and I was right. My flight the next morning was delayed and by the time we touched down in Utah and I arrived at the meeting, it was already wrapping up. My sales partners (they had managed to get direct flights from Toronto) were surprised to see me in the same clothes and teetering heels that I had left Canada in but knew better than to ask too many questions. (Did I mention they were all men?) They informed me that I had missed an unbelievable dinner the night before and that lunch was spectacular, too. Thankfully, it was time to go to the airport to catch our flights home.
They waited patiently for me as I visited the ladies’ room to see what damage I could rectify with the little black comb, and then they facetiously asked if they could help with my luggage. Since the last time I had seen my luggage was in Toronto, I chuckled that it had decided to go on vacation without me.
Finally, I made it back to Houston. My husband was waiting for me at the passenger pick-up and he commented on how quickly I had made it through the airport. I reminded him that traveling with luggage is overrated and all a girl needs are a plastic comb, eye mask and her favorite shoes. The first thing that came off when we arrived back home were those cruel shoes. My feet are still killing me.
I had never been to Houston before, even though I was raised in Dallas, but years ago, when I was a young supplier rep, I made several appointments in America’s fourth largest city. In those days, our company required us to book our travel through a corporate travel agent. I told her to book me at a hotel brand my grandfather had relied on called Howard Johnson. Back in the 1960s, he thought that chain was the cat’s meow. On Sunday evening, arriving as late as possible to make the most of my weekend, I landed in Houston and picked up my rental car.
Since this was 1989, GPS technology was not available to this eager young rep looking for his hotel in a large city. I asked the rental car agent how to find the ‘HoJo’ and pulling out a map, he began drawing all over it like it was an Etch-a-Sketch. Confused as ever, I drove onto Loop 610, which circles the city. I drove and drove and finally, around midnight, pulled into a convenience store parking lot to use the payphone. I called the hotel for directions. As I hung up, a young man around 17 years old asked if he could borrow 50 cents. Twenty feet behind him was another group of young men dutifully watching their comrade ask me for financial aid. After hearing that I did not have any change, they quickly deduced I must have some because I had just dropped a quarter into the payphone. “Then, how about paper money?” the young man asked as his buddies crept closer to me. I decided my best option was to quickly jump back into the car and speed away.
I finally found the HoJo and was a bit unsettled by the plywood nailed over the windows. It didn’t seem to convey the usual sentiment: “Pardon our dust while we improve for your comfort.” As I walked into the hotel lobby, the intoxicating aroma of incense filled the air. It smelled like a cross between milk weed and fresh cut grass. I was not a fan, but I accepted their attempt at creating a comfortable environment during this renovation process. The desk clerk was an interesting sort. I concluded he must be a member of some local community group like Kiwanis or Toastmasters because he had on a black leather vest with a skeleton riding a motorcycle on the back.
I checked into my room, feeling fiscally responsible for booking a $35 per night hotel. Luckily, I found a pizza place that would deliver and proceeded to call in my order. The room phone earpiece had a strangely comfortable feel to it, so I pulled it away from my ear and noticed what appeared to be a gel of some sort. At that moment, I believe I vomited a little in my mouth. I ordered my pizza, took a shower and waited hungrily for the delivery. After gorging myself on my late dinner, I made sure my door was locked and bolted. I laid down and tried to drift off to sleep but I kept hearing a woman who seemed to be in some distress in the next room. After about 20 minutes, the noises ceased, and I heard someone leave. Soon, someone else arrived and more of the same sounds ensued. It was then I thought it would be wise to wedge a chair under my doorknob.
The next morning, I awoke to the realization this was not part of the hotel chain my grandfather loved. And this area of Houston was not one I would be returning to.
I was new to the supplier side of the industry and had been trying to secure an appointment with a local distributor for months. When they finally gave me the opportunity, I knew it was my time to shine. Confident as ever, I rolled my giant sample bag into their office and was directed to the meeting room.
The conference room was well appointed and each beautifully crafted product sitting on the shelves around the room acted as a trophy for a job well done by the sales staff. The branded products were unique with beautiful decoration. This was not your average showroom. After spending a moment taking it all in, I pulled in my overstuffed bag with the intent to lean it against a wall to access my samples. The wall I zeroed in on had a skateboard propped up against it and a rolling apparel rack.
As I was positioning my bag, it nicked the skateboard which fell into the rolling rack and suddenly there was a loud crash. The sound of breaking glass resonated through the room and the smell of wine permeated the air. Unbeknownst to me, there were about a dozen bottles of wine stored near the rack. The whole corner of this pristine showroom was now covered in glass and merlot. I was mortified!
I apologized profusely to my very gracious client and offered to pay the cleaning bill. I had not left the first impression I had intended to.
A few weeks later, I was at lunch with another client from the same office who did not attend my disastrous meeting. I told him my embarrassing story of broken glass and wine-soaked carpet. When I got to the part about knocking over the skateboard, he looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re the wine girl! That was my skateboard!”
“Dang, dude!” I replied. “This whole incident could have been avoided! Didn’t your mom ever tell you to put away your toys?”
One of my previous employers had converted two older RVs into mobile showrooms. As territory reps, we were assigned to one of the RVs for about four to six weeks twice a year. We were trained to operate them, as well as keep them stocked with products and keep them housed at a storage unit near our homes. For the duration of time that we were tasked with these monsters, we used them to travel our territory to meet with distributors and their clients. The number of mishaps each of us encountered with the beasts would fill an entire book but my most memorable experience took place as I was returning from a trip to Victoria, Texas, where I was visiting customers.
At the time, I was obsessed with vanilla-flavored Dr. Pepper from Sonic, and that day the call for one was pretty strong. While on the road, I saw a billboard for the fast-food mecca and happily exited the highway. I turned left on the road I thought would take me to my intended destination, but soon realized I was instead on a two-lane country road. I had to turn around.
I finally saw a gravel driveway that appeared long enough to turn the beast and I pulled in. After looking both ways, I put the transmission in reverse. It was then I realized I had not pulled far enough into the driveway to give myself room to back out the other way. The next thing I knew, I had backed the beast into a ditch, blocking both directions of this two-lane country road. Panic set in when I could not drive forward. I was stuck! To my relief, an old farmer came along in his big dually [a standard truck with an extra set of rear wheels] with a dog in the back. He pulled over and began directing traffic around the front end of the RV and over the gravel driveway. Eventually the farmer’s buddies showed up (one of them in a tractor) like there was a barn-raising and they helped direct traffic. The farmer then pulled some chains out of the bed of his dually and hooked them to the chasse of the RV. With ease, he pulled the beast out of the ditch and cleared the road that was now clogged with vehicles. Then he pulled the RV much farther onto the gravel driveway and got beneath it to disengage his chains as his buddies looked on. That was when I began crying tears of embarrassment and joy. The farmer stuck his hand out from under the beast to hold mine and said, “You’re a concrete girl, aren’t ’cha?” Through my tears I confirmed his suspicions.
After the beast had been disconnected from the dually, I thanked the farmer and his buddies and asked, “Would you like to come into the RV so I can offer you some samples?” They looked at one another and said, “No thank you, ma’am. We’re married men.”
Kim Reinecker, MAS, is the southwest regional manager for supplier Starline USA and has been a supplier rep based in Texas for over 30 years.