5 Tips to Maximize Your International Business Travel

Just because you’re a frequent flier doesn’t mean you have a global mindset, says Gregory Unruh, co-author (with Angel Cabrera) of Being Global: How to Think, Act, and Lead in a Transformed World: “You can have the same Hilton experience in Shanghai as you can in Sao Paolo. It’s very possible to travel internationally without really becoming global.” If you want to get the most out of your international travel  – not just add miles to your Platinum status – here are five strategies to globalize your perspective.

  1. Don’t stay in a chain hotel. “When I have to go on a trip,” says Unruh, “I try to find a hotel that’s not an international chain, but more of a local hotel or bed and breakfast.” It requires some research (you don’t want something too far away from your meetings) and a willingness to give up member points. But you’ll get a more authentic view of the country.
  2. Read up beforehand. It’s tempting to pack your briefcase full of papers for work. Why read up on a country when you’ll barely see anything outside the conference room? But buying a tourbook and reading up on local customs, history, or culture can provide helpful fodder for conversations – and perhaps pique your interest enough to get you out on the town.
  3. Experience local culture. You may be so jetlagged, the last thing you want to do is go out and ‘experience culture’ at 3 a.m. your time. But Unruh says you should make the effort, anyway. “Even if you don’t have much time, there’s always a museum of local history,” he says. “You can find out more about the people who live there, what’s happened, how the town formed. You have to look for those opportunities.”
  4. Start a conversation. Especially if you don’t speak the language, it can be intimidating to approach locals. You may feel embarrassed or frustrated that you can’t communicate well. But try to learn a few words from the guidebook and give it your best shot – it’ll be appreciated. “As much as possible, be an extrovert,” Unruh advises. “Try to talk to the waiter or waitress; start asking questions.”
  5. Try the food. A quick and enjoyable way to learn about a country is to sample the local food. And though some hotel restaurants are excellent, a solid path to authenticity – where safe – is to eat at small, mom-and-pop restaurants. “Ask for the local dish and the local wine,” says Unruh. “They’ll be very proud.” And you’ll have great stories to tell when you return home, recounting that unbelievable Spanish paella or Peking duck.

Developing a global mindset and becoming a top-notch international traveler “requires a little forethought before you get on the plane,” says Unruh. At first, diving headlong into the real culture of a foreign country (as opposed to the five-star hotel version) can be discomfiting. “All the things you take for granted – the way you’re supposed to sneeze or eat your food – those things no longer work. There’s a process of culture shock and adaptation. But if you stick with it long enough, you can see why it makes sense and is logical to them – and why, when they come to our country, our logic might seem weird.”

The process of widening your experience and understanding new cultures can literally reshape your brain, says Unruh: “Once you’ve done that, your mind is more flexible, and you’re able to handle complexity better.” And those are skills we could all use.

How do you maximize your international travel? And what steps are you taking to develop a global mindset?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on June 7, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.