In the Field — Travel Principles for the Qualitative Researcher
Louis Hotel in Munich, Germany has rooms in which a bathtub opens directly into the room. Sitting in the tub, guests can enjoy a glass of wine or cup of tea and watch TV if desired. I stayed here a few years ago while traveling for a 2-day workshop, and beyond it being a beautifully accommodating lodging option, it left me rested and energized for work tasks.
About six months later, I was flying to North Carolina for a similar workshop. Troubles started at Boston’s Logan Airport. The aftermath of hurricane Sandy was still impacting air travel, and upon arrival in Charlotte at 1 AM, the last rental car shuttle took us to a lot with no cars. Many people had rented cars from Charlotte to return to their homes after the storm, leaving the lots bare. With a two-hour drive still ahead of us, our request to the client to postpone the next day’s meeting did not go through (technical difficulties). We showed up late, and exhausted.
Traveling as consultants, and in particular when doing qualitative research, can be unpredictable. I have experienced some very good moments and those which left much to be desired. As an Experience Researcher, I think deeply about how my travel impacts the work that I do. If predictability is a common and known travel issue, then I need to have flexible ways to mitigate it.
When I travel, I usually opt for the most direct transit. I am open to traveling early morning, as opposed to the night before. I park at the airport or take public transportation. I fly Delta or JetBlue, and I prefer Westin or Marriott. I am a member of various loyalty programs and check in on their perks. I do my best to eat well and move my body. Travel is a big part of what I do, and as such, I use these principles to isolate it as a potential issue to my work.
Discover the location.
Being in the field requires intense planning and scheduling. Visiting 20 people’s homes in the sprawling Bay Area suburbs in one week is not an unheard of ask. Beyond being organized and diligent with others on the project team, it is crucial to understand the landscape of amenities at your destination. Of all the time we dedicate to being in people’s homes or in a lab, there is also plenty of in-between time that can be made useful to you and the project.
Depending on your location, you might be up against significant traffic, for instance. As a result, it might be in the team’s best interest to hire a driver as opposed to renting a car. Offloading the driving task might cost more in expenses, but it can streamline the debrief process (now conducted in the back seat). You might also end up in farmland in northern Michigan for one week with very few lodging options. Locating a central hotel with all accommodations coupled with long day drives might be the best approach.
Doing some investigating on the location’s realities should be a part of your fielding strategy. Crafting a non-scheduled itinerary can help alleviate the ambiguity of in-between time that can eat up meaningful work time.
Develop loyalties with travel services.
There are a multitude of reasons (i.e., travel services getting cheaper, perks) why you should enroll in membership/rewards programs. I have arrived at hotels only to find out that if I had simply signed up on their website, I would have free Wi-Fi. I have also waited in long rental car lines, when I could have become a member and walked straight to my car.
Loyalty to particular airlines, hotels, car rental agencies, and other travel services can be of benefit over the long term (no kidding). Being surprised with an upgraded seat on an international flight is definitely an accumulated upside — and I arrive a happier researcher. More practically, I have been able to switch flights for free or at deep discounts when plans change last minute, simply because I have status. My loyalty can sometimes pay off for the project at hand.
Care for yourself, first.
Bake self-care time into your day. If I am arriving the day before data gathering, I usually order room service and do some stretches in the hotel. Some hotels are better than others for fitness accommodations (Kimpton Hotels sometimes have a yoga mat in the room). In Atlanta, me and the observer client would take 10-minute walks in between in-home sessions to stretch our legs and debrief.
I have had many great meals on the road, but I have also had terrible ones. I once ate a freezer burned Lean Cuisine with coffee stir sticks followed by a dessert of orchard flavored Skittles. Having access to plenty of water and healthy snacks is something I try to prioritize. I scope out a Whole Foods to get a couple granola bars or fruit, and always bring my reusable water bottle and coffee cup.
Determine uptime thresholds.
I always determine just about how much client face-time I will have on a trip. For many clients, a research trip is a rare opportunity to travel, but for me it’s par for the course. The novelty of travel wears off for introverts like me, so I plan for the much needed alone time I need to reset. I have gone on early morning jogs with clients, then breakfast, a day of 3-hour in-homes, long dinners, and even sight seeing adventures with clients. While I’m not always “on” during these moments, the inevitability to talk shop is always looming. Interpretation and ambiguity drive qualitative research work, over-discussing what was learned in the field can happen — find ways to temper overthinking.
Prior to going into the field, I try to set some off-time expectations. Usually one planned, reserved dinner is on the docket. I typically eat breakfast in my room to catch up on emails. If anyone is up for a morning jog, I tend to take them up on it. Beyond that, it’s a case-by-case basis with no pressure to be attached at the hip.
When traveling to Japan, I found myself working almost round the clock for 10 days. As the only researcher in the field, I was not only key note taker, but also co-facilitator (with the Japanese researcher), and client liaison. I had four members of the client team in the field with me, and only one would accompany the in-homes at a time. As such, there was often two hours of post-session debrief and questions, after that a lengthy dinner, and often post-dinner Tokyo touring. I would return to my room just as the East coast was waking up to answer emails on other projects. I was bordering the edge of burnout. Having had established some time-space boundaries, it might have felt less so.
Be patient and scrappy.
A guarantee when traveling is that unexpected moments will occur. I recently signed up for Global Entry (to breeze through TSA at the airport), and JetBlue seemed to never give me pre-check. I finally decided to get to the bottom of it and relentlessly (but politely) spoke with a variety of people to get to the Logan Airport JetBlue manager. He was just as confused as I was that no one, even JetBlue’s customer service, could figure out the issue. He made a few key strokes and voila, I had pre-check. Sadly, whatever he did didn’t stick, and for some reason seems unrepeatable. Anyway, my scrappiness paid off in the moment, but beyond that I simply have to practice patience.
Patience and a smile can go a long way. Remember, if unpredictable moments can happen in travel, then why anticipate that things will always go smoothly? I always mentally prepare myself for hiccups. I then work to change my attitude so that I may not be affected by these hiccups. I once had a 6:00 AM flight that kept getting delayed. Two hours, then four, then six passed. I took all the calls I was hoping to take at home from the gate. I took advantage of the free lunch voucher. Maybe I sent an annoyed tweet, but in general I simply sat and took in the O’Hare sites. Finally took off 12 hours later.
Patience can sometimes have returns. Another trip from Chicago was canceled and rather than flying direct to Boston on July 3. I was rerouted to Charlotte, then to Boston. I approached the desk for my seat assignment to a gate attendant who had been continually chewed out. I smiled and thanked him for all of his help to get me home, and he changed my seat to first class (score)!
Identify your own principles, be flexible with solutions.
Once you have traveled enough, you know what works and what does not. The travel expectations I listed above are not simply born of my desires. Rather, these expectations are a result of real experiences and a relentless need for efficiency. When I travel, I think about time and energy as opposed to cost. The amount of time and energy spent thinking about the non-intellectual part of being in the field, is less time I can devote my mind to the work at hand.
Knowing your expectations is important, but communicating them is even more so. Being organized and clear with travel ideals will remove the burden from the person booking the itinerary (if it is not you). I keep all my information in a spreadsheet and provide one or two flight alternatives, cross streets for hotels (if not the actual desired hotel), and loyalty information.
Sometimes clients will push back on travel itineraries. Hear their thoughts to understand the source of their concern. If cost is a concern, it’s usually because the ask came very close to the fielding date (travel costs increase as the departure date nears), the time of year (seasons impact costs), or location (NYC is more expensive than Milwaukee). Know the cost of travel inside and out so that you can justify your itinerary, but also be flexible. Explain that staying at a downtown Westin will save on rental car costs. Be clear about the benefits of flying direct to reach the destination swiftly as opposed to making a connection and losing a day of fielding.
While from the outside my stay at Louis Hotel could be interpreted as luxurious, it was actually just enough to effectively reset and perform to the best of my abilities (considering I was in Germany for only two full days of back-to-back work). Travel is subjective — so setting personal standards is crucial in being an operable and useful in-the-field researcher.