Business Traveler Interview: Madeline Jhawar

by Jessica on February 23, 2011

by Jessica | February 23rd, 2011  

This is part of a new series here at WhyGo Business Travel featuring brief interviews with people who travel for work, asking them about what they do and some of their favorite travel tips. This way, if you’re looking for a career that will require travel, you’ll get to read about people doing some of the jobs you might consider – and you’ll also learn a few great travel tips from the travel pros!

This week, we’re talking with Madeline Jhawar, who’s currently based in Chicago. You can find her at ItalyBeyondtheObvious.com, which is the name of her company and her blog, and @MadelineJ on Twitter.

What do you do?
I’ve had several jobs that involved lots of travel, so I’m going to answer these questions for my jobs as a professional tour guide, an international operations manager, and for my current Italy travel consultancy company.

What kind of travel do you get to do for work?
As a tour guide, I’d fly over to Europe for 3-6 months at a time. I’d fly into Paris, get myself to Beaune, France (near Dijon), load a van full of bikes and drive over the Alps to Italy to guide week-long cycling or hiking trips. That kind of travel is perfect when you have lots of energy and want to see the world: I saw Italy’s major sights, at the best time of year, ate fantastic food, and cycled through incredible scenery. But I also worked 18 hours a day with no days off and went months without seeing family or friends.

Then, working as an international operations manager, I got to travel to our company’s sales offices and warehouses around the world. I traveled to exciting destinations (Hong Kong! Madrid! Tel Aviv!), but often I saw mainly just the taxi, the airport, the airplane, the conference room and my hotel room. Usually on the first visit to a place, local colleagues would take us out and make sure we saw a couple main tourist attractions and taste local food, so there was a bit of tourism involved, but the focus was really on the work. The best part of that job was not the short and frenetic business trips I took, but the opportunity I had to live in several different cities, and really work with the locals. During my 8 years in international operations, I lived in New York, Stockholm, Milan, and Boston, with shorter stints of a few months in Reno, Pittsburgh, and Paris.

As an Italy travel consultant, the only country I need to visit for work is Italy, and I don’t need to go as often, because I’ve already lived there 5 years. When I do go, work means visiting attractions, hotels, local festivals and other fun stuff like that.

Do you get to choose where you go?
When I applied for the job as a tour guide, because I spoke Italian and had already lived there, I knew I’d be guiding in Italy, but I didn’t get to choose which trips I guided. But it didn’t matter because I loved them all.

Initially as an international operations manager I didn’t get to choose my destination, because it was always related to the projects I was working on, and I usually traveled as part of an IT or integration team. Then when I became more senior and managed my own budget and projects, I got to decide where to travel in order to do my job. When I was based in Stockholm, I had frequent trips to Copenhagen, Helsinki and Oslo. Based in Milan, I needed to travel to France, Spain, around Italy, and to Israel. When I was based in Boston, I had to visit the UK, Hong Kong, and Malaysia on a regular basis.

Now, as the owner of my own business, I decide where in Italy to go, and how long to stay.

How often do you get to travel for work?
As a tour guide, there’s no going home, so I guess it’s 100% travel. I was either on a trip, or at the office in France for a couple days doing expenses before heading out on my next trip. When the cycling trips ended in early July, I’d stay in France or Italy for the summer, find odd jobs, and stay at hostels until the end of August when we’d start up again.

As an international operations manager, travel was between 25% and 50%. When you’re a single twenty- or thirtysomething, it’s a fantastic lifestyle. However a significant down side of doing all that travel is that it’s hard to make friends – living in a new place and traveling most of the time doesn’t help. But that amount of travel gets tiring and it wasn’t as fun being away once I got married. Now that there are two kids in the picture, that amount of travel would be really difficult.

Today, I decide when I need to travel, where in Italy to go and how long to stay. This type of flexibility is invaluable with 2 young kids and a husband who travels a lot, too.

Did you choose your job at least in part because you love to travel?
Yes, I chose all these jobs in part because of the travel, but not because of the travel itself but because I’m endlessly fascinated with other cultures. Travel is an opportunity to understand another culture, to immerse oneself in another language and try to learn it, and to really see how other people live, work, make decisions, and get things done. With the exception of trains in India, I don’t really enjoy the “getting there” part of travel, rather it’s the “being there” part that I love – so much so that I’ve been a bit of a serial expat, and am about to move to my 11th city.

Would you make the same job choice again, knowing what you know now?
I would, but I feel like I didn’t really choose my jobs, rather I was able to take advantage of good opportunities that presented themselves that were aligned with what I love to do. That said, I’ve been prepared for the opportunities when they arrived, in that I’ve been qualified and been able to describe what I wanted to do. Often, as soon as I’ve been able to articulate it, the opportunity has presented itself, which has been a bit eerie.

What are some of your favorite travel tips that you’ve picked up?
When I started traveling frequently, I changed the way I pack my suitcase. I lay everything out on the floor, then put a thin layer of flat, rolled, clothing on the bottom of my suitcase, then a layer of bulky things (shoes, toiletries, gifts etc). Then I stuff the bulky layer with socks and small items to make it flat, and then put another layer of flat clothing on top.

Travel tip for winter travel: I bring an extra empty bag to the airport for my coat, scarf, mittens, hat etc. It makes getting through the airport security and onto the airplane easier – especially when traveling with kids.

Travel tip when traveling with kids: split up diaper bag items into several bags and put smaller bags under multiple seats rather than 1 gigantic bag under 1 seat.

What advice do you have for someone who’s interested in doing what you do?
Speaking languages and having a university degree have been the two most important things in every job I’ve had. Next, I’d say never underestimate the power of networking. And if you’re young and want to work in an international operations type of job in corporate America, be patient – even if you’re smart enough, and itching to use what you learned in that organizational behavior class, you may have to endure a couple years of boring business trips and “do your time” so to speak. To be blunt: suck it up and be a team player.

Advice for someone who wants to be a travel consultant? Speak the language. Know the country really, really well. Love what you do. If you want it to be a business, you’ll need to think like a business person.

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