Careers: Interviews
Internationally Known Business Travel Authority Provides Best Practices...

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the internationally known business travel authority, senior business consultant and strategist, and widely respected author, Donna Williams.


Donna began her well-traveled career in the mid-1980s as a banker with Bankers Trust Company. As an investment banker, she worked primarily to design structured finance transactions for healthcare and travel services companies. In 1993, she received her MBA from Columbia Business School. From there she launched her publishing career at Doubleday and was subsequently recruited to work in strategic development for the Times Mirror Company. In 1998, she joined BigStar Entertainment to become Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development. Prior to writing the Business Travel Almanac 2004, Donna was a bi-coastal marketing and business development consultant; her clients included internet and publishing companies in industries spanning surfing to travel to healthcare. She lives in Athens, New York where she writes about travel and is an occasional professor of microeconomics and marketing. This is her second book. She is also the author of New York On The Fly published by On The Fly International, LLC.




Q: Thank you for taking time out to do this interview. Your book is a “must-read” for all! Donna, your strong business background provides unique validation to your most recent work on travel—Business Travel Almanac, 2004. What led you to write this book?


A: That is a long story wrapped up in one word “opportunity”. I saw an opportunity in the market for business travel information. There are 34 million people that travel for business each year, yet there is no comprehensive reference and guidebook and few general books on the topic. I felt that business travel was an under-published segment and saw an opportunity for not just one book but a series. In addition, my personal circumstance allowed me the opportunity to write the book. I had chosen to leave behind my New York City life as a business development and marketing professional and move to small town in upstate New York.


Q: How did you research the book and which parts are your favorites?


A: For the most part research was done in equal parts of internet research, oral and written interviews, and my own travel. I spoke with or e-mailed about 125 marketing and public relations personnel from the city convention and visitors’ bureaus, airports, convention centers, associations and companies covered in the book. In addition, I hired two very talented researchers to work with me. There is about 9 months of “women” hours invested in the book’s research and writing.


I had some delightful conversations with Visitors Bureau’s personnel, especially in Houston and Dallas, where their enthusiasm for their cities was contagious. I also enjoyed “discovering” new products and services such as the public pool at Miami Airport and EV Rentals, a company that rents environmental vehicles.


Q: Why did you structure the book into the two sections?


A: Business people take for granted the fact that business travel is an extraordinarily complex process. Any one trip can involve dozens of planning and purchasing decisions many of which are significant with respect to success and cost of the trip. The first section of the book is a comprehensive directory of business travel services companies – airlines, rental car companies, hotels, car services, Amtrak and business services. All the reference information and general advice one needs to help with planning and purchasing decisions. The second section of the book, the City Guide section, contains the information you need while on the road. The inherent stress in business travel can often be reduced simply by knowing a little bit more about the destination. Simple mistakes like getting stuck in rush hour traffic in Chicago, getting a $200 parking ticket in New York City or assuming you can rely on cabs in LA can botch a trip and can easily be avoided with a little bit of information.


Q: What differentiates your book from the others?


A: There are only a few books on the market written specifically for business travelers. The best offer a broad array of “tips”. None offer the comprehensive directory information -- the nuts and bolt of telephone numbers, web sites, fees, services, etc… None offer city guide information written strictly for the business traveler.


Q: Provide your best tips for: an airline seat with a powerport; the top restaurants; where trains are faster and cheaper than cabs; the ideal PDA for business needs.


A: 1) Your best bets for finding a seat with a power port are on American, Delta, United and US Airways. All of these airlines offer power ports on selected aircraft, generally the larger long haul aircraft, but availability varies in terms of the class of service. If you are flying coach, Delta and US Airways offer power ports on all seats on 3-4 different aircraft. United offers power ports in first and business class service on three aircraft. American offers power ports in all First/Business Class seats and in about 10 rows in coach on all Boeing 737, 767, 777, Airbus 300 and Fokker 100 aircrafts and most Boeing 757 and Boeing Super 80 aircraft. On page 55 of the book you can find a detail listed of rows with power port for five aircraft.


2) In each city section, the BTA lists the Top Five Best Business Restaurants. These establishments were selected and reviewed by Gayot, a highly respected restaurant review company. Our criteria was to list the restaurants that offered consistent and exceptional service and dining quality; restaurants to which you would feel confident taking important clients.


3) If you are amenable to public transportation and interested in saving money and in most cases time and hassle consider the train. The following table compares cab fare and travel time with train fare and travel time for nine major airports. Please note that the train travel time does not include wait time for scheduled trains which in some case can add 15-30 minutes.


Cab Fare (does not include tips)

Travel Time via Cab

Train Fare

Travel time via Train

Hartsfield to Atlanta


20 minutes (30 minutes rush hour)


16 minutes

Logan to Boston


20-25 minutes (45+ minutes rush hour)


15 minutes

O’Hare to Chicago


30 minutes (40+ minutes rush hour)


45 minutes

National to DC


10 minutes (15 -20 minutes rush hour)


15 minutes

Dulles to DC


45-60 minutes (up to 2 hours rush hour)


55 minutes

Newark to Manhattan


35 minutes (1 hour rush hour)


35 minutes

JFK To Manhattan


45-60 minutes (1 ½ hours rush hour)

$7.00 to $11.75

35-85 minutes depending on destination

Philadelphia Airport to Philadelphia


20 minutes (25-35 minutes rush hour)


15-20 minutes

SFO to San Francisco


20 minutes (40-60 minutes rush hour)


30 minutes


4) There is no ideal PDA for business travel needs since everyone has different contact requirement and information needs. For example, a business traveler that communicates to a large number of people primarily by phone and e-mail may prefer a Handspring Treo; while someone that is sending long e-mails and documents may prefer a notebook computer; quick e-mails to co-workers would dictate a Blackberry.


Q: Now, share that “gem” that we can’t get anywhere else but from you.


A: The most unique information in the book is found in the city guides. Other than getting on the phone and calling someone you know that lives in the city, you won’t find information on travel times and rush hours and recommendations for ground transportation specifically for the business traveler. In addition, knowing whether an airport has business services and where the airline clubs are can be extremely helpful during long layovers or when deadlines call.


Q: And your future book plans?


A: The short-term plan is to publish the 2005 edition of the Business Travel Almanac in the late fall of 2004. I also have some tentative plans for pocket city guides, which will cover a much larger number of cities.


Q: What prompted you to study Economics at Mount Holyoke College and then Business at Columbia?


A: I was interested in going into business and economics offered the most relevant knowledge and conceptual thinking training. I enjoyed working through the puzzle of how businesses succeeded or failed. I chose to get my MBA from Columbia primarily as a means of changing careers. I had had a successful career as a banker but really wanted to be a part of product development and marketing. I found I was much more interested in what my clients did than what I did for them. An MBA allowed me to start over with a clean slate and pursue interests in publishing and marketing.


Q: With such an impressive history in business, why writing?


A:  Writing allowed me to directly create a useful product. Much of my career was spent on the “advisory” side of the table recommending financial, business or new product strategies. My most rewarding business experience was working with a start-up internet company where I was an integral part of creating the product. Since I had chosen to leave behind the corporate and fast-paced world of New York City, for a number of personal and professional reasons, and to move to a small rural town, I was in the position to began again. I do not see myself as much as a writer as a small business person. The Business Travel Almanac is simply the first of what I hope will be several new products.


Q: Please describe your many challenges and successes. And share the many valuable lessons you have learned along the way.


A: The biggest challenge was adjusting from big business thinking to small business thinking. Having been trained in formulating “grand” strategic plans, my first instinct was to in effect “over-manufacturer” the process rather than getting down to business and “doing”. I still have ideas and plans for building the book into a larger business. I have found that an organic process of setting a general direction and goals and following the experience rather than dictating it works much better.  This is much less stressful as I am not putting myself in the position of attempting to control the uncontrollable. 


Writing a book has been one of the most arduous challenges I have undertaken. Writing is a solitary pursuit and requires a great deal of self-discipline and self-confidence. I found that I had to trust my instincts on a daily basis in a way that I hadn’t encountered in the past. At the end of the day, the book with all its flaws and perfections is ultimately mine.


Q: How about two stories with a humorous slant?


A:  A had a lot of fun interviewing people for the book especially the “average-joe” at cab companies, which are a great resource for getting the low-down on getting the low-down on in-town travel. I called one of the local cab companies in Las Vegas and asked what impacted travel times and rush hours. The answer “it depends on whether people are acting stupid.”


While doing research in Los Angeles I rented a hybrid gas/electric car and picked a friend up for dinner. Every few stoplights he would suddenly become agitated. After a bit he finally exclaimed “would you please stop turning the car off at the lights.” He did know we were in a hybrid car which would on occasion run silently.


Q: What are your plans for the future?


A: I would like to turn the BTA into a business travel publications business by publishing a series of related books and creating derivative products such as pocket maps. I also have tentative plans for beginning a business travel-training seminar.


Q: Given the current global economic climate, any advice would help.


A: The internet has done much to commoditize travel. By that, I mean that product pricing is available to consumers making the industry much more competitive. This will drive a couple trends in my view. First, “great deals” will become harder to find since competition will continue to drive overall pricing down. Second, service providers will increasingly differentiate products based on less measurable factors than price and fees and move towards service enhancements.


Q: Perhaps a little controversial—your favorite cities, airports, convention centers, …?


A: I love to travel to Portland and San Francisco. I enjoy the small town feel of Portland combined with the great restaurants and beautiful surroundings. When in San Francisco, I always try to take a few days to head to the wine country. I really enjoy the Metro airport in Detroit which has some beautiful architectural elements, interesting shopping and restaurant alternatives and is easy to navigate for such a massive airport. The Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle is a stunning building with art exhibits and concert series. The location is conveniently near great dining and hotels.


Q: Tell us more about the future of business travel.


A: Lower business airfares are here to stay although I believe that will ultimately mean an overall increase in leisure fares. Look for a continued shakeout in the airline industry. My guess it that the major airlines will continue to downsize and that growth in the new low-fare carriers will start to level out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some consolidation. I think all travel service providers will continue to enhance and differentiate based on service features for business travelers such as internet access and other services to make the business traveler more comfortable and productive.


Q: What additional tips can you share from your book?


A: Use the book as a tool for learning about services you may not be aware of, especially the chapter on Amtrak. Using Amtrak for regional trips can be a great alternative to renting cars or flying. If you are planning a trip to Seattle/Portland, Los Angeles/San Diego or the Northeast Corridor you may be surprised by its services and convenience.


Q: What are the four most compelling issues facing business travelers today? How can the issues be resolved?


A: 1) Security Concerns. My philosophy is that “business as usual” is the best defense to our fears.


2) Plethora of new services. Spend a little time learning about the new low-fare carriers, new hotel brands, and rental car alternatives. You may find that you can save money without compromising your experience.


3) Decrease in value of loyalty programs. As the cost of airfares has declined so has the value of miles. Many business travelers have felt that bulging mileage accounts are a necessary perk of travel and have felt better about traveling because of it. Business may need to find alternative ways of “rewarding” frequent travelers.


4) On-the-Road cost management. As airfares drop, more attention will be paid to ancillary expenses such as cab fares, limousine use, dining, and extras.


Q: What are the qualities that describe a successful executive?


A: The qualities that determine the success of an executive are defined by the type of business they are running. Executives in high-growth and start-up industries must convey individual confidence and determination. They are the captain leading the charge into battle. Executives of large multinationals should inspire trust and a willingness to accept information from outside their core of knowledge.


Q: If you had to do it all over again….?


A: I would have spent a lot less time and energy worrying about the future.


Q: What drives you to do what you do?


A: A desire to create a balance between work and personal life; the satisfaction of having created a useful thing.


Q: How do you keep up with all the changes?


A: Travel experience and following the business travel press.


Q: If you were doing this interview, what question would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answer?


A: Q1: When you set out to write the Business Travel Almanac what are you hoping to accomplish?        

A1: I want to write a book that would be truly useful to the reader; not one that offered pithy information on a trendy topic. My hope is that people will find that the book really improves their lives and becomes a trusted resource for tackling the complexity of travel. I believe that business travel is one of the most underappreciated functions that business people undertake. It is a stressful and disruptive responsibility; but one that is vital and highly productive. I wanted to create a resource that reduces the stress and enhances the ultimate goal of business travel, which is to meet and communicate directly with people, not wrangle with process of getting to the final destination.



Donna, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.


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