Whether you work in audit, consulting, financial advisory, tax or legal, you will be attending meetings outside of the office every now and then, maybe at the client's headquarters or another advisor's office. Depending on the type of project or specific assignment, you may also be required to work full-time at the client's, for weeks or even months at a time. And when you're out there, you represent not only your team, but also the entire network.
It will be during these out-of-town business trips that you can grasp the true extent of just how cheap some of your colleagues actually are. You may also smooth things out or end up becoming good friends with other team members and client employees.
Let's take a closer look at the different aspects of the business trip. We've thrown in some personal anecdotes that we hope you'll enjoy.
Traveling & Commuting
If you have a choice between driving your car, taking a cab, riding a train, taking a ferry, or flying, always choose to drive your own car: this is how you make the big bucks. The km or mileage allowance is generously higher than the fuel price (it includes expenses related to tire wear and oil change, insurance and registration). If you have a company car, on the other hand, your km allowance will be much lower, and may not justify the effort. Take out any extra insurance policy your firm offers (better safe than sorry). And don't be greedy: if other team members also have a car, take turns driving.
If either your superiors or geography force you to take another mode of transportation, make it worth your while by enrolling in customer-loyalty programs: you may earn enough points or miles to travel and stay at hotels for free when you go on holiday. Always inform whoever is booking your trips to include your customer-loyalty number when making the reservation.
There's a good chance you will have to work while commuting. If you are prone to motion sickness, make sure to disclose this information in advance. A colleague almost threw up on an equity partner once, while riding a train backwards... and you can be sure that people are still telling the story, 5 years on.
This may well be the most memorable part of your trip, depending on who you travel with. For example, your director may be someone who makes you eat a cold, sad sandwich while you work during the train ride; or s/he may be a foodie who takes you to try the business lunch at Zuma, or to have a divine Florentine steak topped with a generous serving of freshly grated truffles, accompanied by a fine bottle of Chianti Classico (hopefully after your meeting with the client, not before).
You will want to treat yourself for being away from home, and will spend a good deal of time searching for the best restaurants near you, in which to splurge your daily allowance. It's sad to say, but good food may actually be your only consolation during this time, and you run the risk of gaining weight: book a hotel with a gym, and make sure you exercise regularly; having at least one gym buddy among your colleagues can help to stay motivated.
Taking your client out for lunch, every now and then, will make you look good (even if they end up indirectly paying the bill). On that occasion, you may want to keep the following in mind (especially if you already know that you're not a pretty sight when you eat):
order dishes that don't involve special skills, like twirling spaghetti or eating with chopsticks, unless you're a pro;
avoid finger food, or anything that might drip down your face and hands;
avoid broths, salads, or anything that might "spray paint" your shirt or the client's;
when making a reservation or placing your order, be mindful and respectful of your client's eating habits (e.g. vegetarianism) and, more importantly, her/his religious beliefs (think twice before ordering pork, beef or alcohol).
Hotels & Accommodations
Depending on the engagement letter and any changes to its standard clauses negotiated by the client, you may have to deal with challenging budget constraints (e.g. expenses capped to a low % of fees) or limitations to what items you may expense.
Because of tough budget constraints imposed by their client, for example, two female colleagues had to book a place on Airbnb instead of a hotel when traveling out-of-town for a project. Fortunately, the two women were friends and this arrangement worked out well for them, as they were able to stay in comfortable apartments close to their client's office in the heart of a stunning European capital, and for a fraction of the price of two tiny rooms in a hotel located farther away from the city center. However, this is hardly a problem that other tier 2 consulting firms would ever have to face...
This was more of an exception, rather than the norm: Big 4s have set policies on the room rate caps by city. In any case, the best thing is to go on booking.com and choose the policy-compliant hotel that you like best: experience has taught us that you will always find better deals for nicer accommodations than whoever is in charge of making reservations at your firm. It's one of those great unsolved mysteries...
Working client-side means you will get to see how other people work: corporate employees will start their day earlier than consultants (typically before 9 am), and will leave for the day when the sun is still shining bright.
It will physically hurt you to hear "good night, see you tomorrow" at 3 or 4 pm. The typical consultant will think: "I wouldn't even know what to do with all that extra time!". Well, here's a secret for you: you would know. You would finally realize that your apartment is a mess and is just waiting for you to clean it; that you can pick up a book, instead of dull contracts, and read for pleasure; that you can binge-watch that new series; that you have time to study for that certification; that you can exercise; that you can meet a friend for drinks; that you can go see that exhibition; that you can actually go out to dinner without feeling guilty for leaving the office before 7:30 pm. Simply put, there is a world out there that you haven't seen since your college years (yes, it's still out there!).
By 5 or 6 pm you will be on your own at the client's office and, if you're lucky, it won't be long before you will be kicked out by the security guard, who needs to activate the alarm systems. In any case, your working hours will depend on your project manager: s/he may either persuade the client to let you work at their office till late, make you keep working from the hotel, or call it a day at a reasonable hour; s/he may make you skip lunch to save time, or take you out for a 2-hour lunch to enjoy the local delicacies.
Whether you end up enjoying or hating an engagement simply comes down to your project manager being efficient (and cool) or not. Find that manager you work best with: each of us has a different management style, which cannot suit everyone. If you still end up working for a boss you don't like (for valid reasons), bond with your colleagues: sticking together and supporting each other through difficult times will make everything better. And if that doesn't work either, take advantage of your close proximity to the client, and be on the lookout for openings!
Other Internal Dynamics
Even though there is a specific clause on out-of-pocket expenses in every engagement letter, there are project managers who just won't let their team expense anything, not even the cab fares to and from client's office, in order to increase the project's profitability. A special place in hell is reserved for them. No one should pay to work: if you meet any such resistance from the project manager, bypass them and go directly for partner approval (which will be granted in no time by their PAs).
Because out-of-town assignments can be tiring and demanding, they can help speed up your career advancement. Make sure you regularly provide updates to the project leader, informing her/him of the progress made up to that point, of any obstacles that arose and how you overcame them. And if the client provides positive feedback, you're golden.
Thanks for reading, safe travels and good luck!