When GPS doesn’t cut it

“Today I was 25 minutes late for an appointment with an agent. I arrived, apologised and clocked my reflection: straggly hair, red face and a sweat moustache – yep, I was rocking my “visiting agents in Bangkok” look. My lateness wasn’t my fault. Well, not really. It was 35 degrees outside and after I stepped out from the icy Skytrain, I was at the mercy of a Google map, my own sense of direction and the elements.

Finding agent’s offices are, for me, often a hit and miss affair, made worse by the fact that I have no sense of direction. If there are two ways to go, I will choose the wrong one. It’s got so bad that I’ve actually started to second guess myself and if my instincts say “left”, I will go right. Admittedly my lack of self-belief hasn’t helped me come to any life-changing conclusions, except that perhaps I spend a bit too much time alone on these trips…

Girl Guide map reading skills aside, it’s the weather that often proves most problematic to many of us, hindering our success in getting to our appointments on time. I have almost face-planted on the icy streets of Seoul, my colleague John has complained of trench-foot schlepping around rainy autumnal Moscow and on one occasion I had to call a Ukrainian agent from a metro station apologising that I couldn’t make the appointment as I couldn’t see the other side of the road because of the blizzard that had descended on Kiev.

Some cities are just not designed for anyone to find any address. Tokyo, for example, foxes even the canniest local due to the lack of visible street names.  But sometimes I visit a city that is dream to get around, where taxis are cheap and plentiful and the cabbie knows where he’s going and doesn’t add a “stupid foreigner tax” to the fare. Where there are logical street patterns, addresses close to metro stations, temperate climates… But where’s the fun in that?

For all this, the often epic quest of finding the agent’s office is very much part of the fun, the challenge of my job. These are the stories I tell my friends to make my job sound like I am an international woman of mystery (or confusion). I regale friends and family with methods of finding the offices, from my ingenious problem solving (“so I remembered the Italian word for ‘church’ and hoped it was similar in Romanian”) to my damn right ballsy  (“so I just opened the unmarked door, hoping I was right…”).

My most recent success in averting the disaster of missing a meeting was in Tokyo.  I had the right building at the right time but hadn’t written down which floor the office was on or (very unusually for me) hadn’t made a note of their phone number.

So I went to the company directory at the front of the building.  Everything was in Japanese.  I tried to pick up my emails on my phone but it wouldn’t sync.  I tried Google on my phone but it wouldn’t work.  I could have gone back to my hotel, booted up my laptop and found their address but it would have made me unforgivably late.  Then it came to me. I walked up to the directory, grabbed a passer by and said the name of the agency in my best Japanese accent while pointing at the directory and shrugging.  The passerby pointed to a company name which had a number “6” by it.  I got the lift to the sixth floor and there was my agent.

When I eventually arrive at an agent’s office after an experience that would test Jason Bourne, I (rather un-coolly) feel the need to explain my journey to my agent, either as an explanation of my lateness, or because I just want to share it with someone. “You asked for a receipt in Mandarin?!”, they say, “You asked a passerby for directions in your elementary Spanish?”, “You found our office which is opposite your hotel, with a map and GPS on your phone? All by yourself?!”  Yes, I did!

One of my agents in Bangkok didn’t even flinch when I exclaimed, ridiculously, “it’s hot out there”. No, I guess I don’t expect a round of applause when I arrive at an agent’s office (it would be great though) but a little appreciation would be nice. Or possibly even a cup of tea and digestive biscuit?

Maybe the challenges we face finding the office makes our meetings more productive? Perhaps. More likely though is that us international marketers love an adventure… and isn’t it all about the journey, not the destination?”

Hannah Alexander works for a UK university and is based in Hong Kong for the moment.