How “not” to do business when traveling

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ October 11th, 2010. Updated on September 22nd, 2014. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » How to live overseas » Philippines.
Calculator and Pen

Making money as you travel … there are pitfalls

Avoiding business mistakes when traveling: lessons learned

Strange as it might seem, but learning lessons through travel is relatively easy compared to learning lessons through business and travel combined.

I’ve learned a lesson on how not to do business when traveling

In each country I pass through, there are a different set of rules. Not just for travel, but also culture, race, religion, and so on. It’s nearly a never ending circle. You sometimes get so far, figure you have it, and then poof back to square one again. Maybe it is never ending? I do stand by some basic principals that stay similar the world over.

Travel is easy. Business can be easy too. But, mix the two together, and it’s a whole new set of rules.

Mixing in business with travel. Or to put it another way, trying to make money when traveling to sustain this journey, adds a new element to the game.

Making money as you travel example gone wrong

In one guesthouse I always return to in The Philippines I struck up a good relationship with the businesses owner. I was after all, a repeat customer. The owner was always full of bright ideas for his businesses.

I did some work for him over a couple of weeks. Laughs and smiles ensured there would be no problem with “getting paid” from the start.

Nepalese man selling grapes

It’s like buying grapes, not every one you get is going to be good …

When it came time for me to leave I asked him alone for what was owed. Much to my naïve surprise, I was handed a rather large total. I looked at it, my eyes scanning for a discount sign.

“And, for the work?”

He looked at me with puffy eyes and I could see he knew what I meant. But like most in The Philippines, he laughed as if I were joking. Business man to the last.

Money for nothing … and your room for pesos

“I’m serious,”

“But we’re friends?” he replied.

I put the bill down, and looked at it. My choice was to pay, and leave defeated. Get angry and cause a scene. Or, try a guilt trip with him.

In truth I was rather disappointed with myself. When you travel alone for quite a while, it’s good to have a break and have a small project. While he was getting free work, I was spending time having a break from wondering where to go next, or how to pay for my next meal.

It’s bliss when that occurs.

If I had managed the situation a little better I should have said or suggested this at the start. But, there is a very good reason why I did not. Read on …

A difference in culture when it comes to business?

It’s The Philippines. One doesn’t come out and say these thing’s as say you would in Germany or China. There you hit the nail on the head straight away. In other countries it’s custom to smile, joke and take a more relaxed approach to business. Otherwise it simply will not work.

On this occasion though; the reverse was true. I played by the “cultural” rules, and got played. I took out my wallet and nodded.

“Okay, no problem.”

His face went serious, as he thought he’d won. No friendship here.

“But,” I continued and told him I was going to do a similar job in another hotel when I come back.

A smile broke over his face again as he reached for the bill. My last ditch ploy worked.

I left without having to pay, and a lesson learned.

What if I’d played hardball and set out a price from the start?

Yep, many must be thinking it’s stupid to not set out a price from the start. Well, here’s the thing. If I had done that. Then, most likely he’d have dithered about for ages. And, taken offence. I was after all, a customer. He’d have a “price”, and then gone looking for a cheaper price from his cousin etc.

Nine out of ten times the relation will get the job before the stranger.

I now have to reevaluate this approach, and possibly turn down work in the future. I simply don’t need this aggravation and second guessing in every country I go to.

Giant mega corporations have whole departments for dealing with people in other countries. I am but one person. I believe the only sensible answer it to write my own rules.

Worse yet, is the sting of dealing with business people from overseas

So what happens when a person outside the country sends you a business proposal. They invarably mention money a lot. As in, the rewards will be great. Surely they can be trusted to deliver?

Sadly, again this is not true. Just because the person is from Europe, or the U.S.A. and contacts you about some freelance work, does not mean they too will pay up.

Email is one thing, a face to face is another

You can spend all day emailing each other. Heck, you can even have a skype conversation. But, at the end of the day you are both so

Polish business car beside tourist

Even in developed countries the business person’s life is very different to that of a traveler. Or is it?  Today, you need to stand your ground and have your own business rules – a lesson learned

far apart physically, that mentally reneging on a deal becomes easier.

For someone traveling like me, the result is a huge loss.

The office based business person vs the freelance traveler

The business person sitting in an office in New York sends you a proposal. They see you traveling in a country. If a deal falls through: they can then figure, “well, they were there anyway, no loss to anyone.”

What they don’t see is the traveler extending visas, making calls to local business, and trying get longer term accommodation. All easy to write about, but harder and more costly in reality.

How to avoid making business mistakes when traveling?

If I enter into either type of “relationship” again, I will set the tone and points from the start. I can’t afford to spend time at a place helping others without a return. Not at this stage of my travels.

Traveler to businessman, it’s a one way road from now on.

Payment upfront

Fees upfront. Call them consultation fees, call them finder fees, call them what you like.

If someone see’s a value in a service you can provide, then they need to put up first.

I don’t know if anyone else has been burnt when trying to earn money like this? Or how they have dealt with it. It would be interesting to find out?

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18 Great responses to How “not” to do business when traveling

  1. Trisha says:

    Hi there,
    Brilliant example of indirect communication in action in the Phillippines – thanks for sharing. You have obviously gained significant cultural inteligence as you travel!
    Good luck on future journeys

  2. well, u know the root of all evil is $$ and many relationships (not just friendships but romantic ones as well) can come to a premature end, if we are not careful. no such thing as a gentleman’s handshake anymore im afraid.. sign on the dotted line!!!

  3. Tim says:

    Excellent job of negotiating. Most westerners would have made a scene and probably been unsuccessful. Having recently finalized a used car purchase here in PI I can appreciate what you went through.

    to ciki: It’s the LOVE of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself. People choose their behavior.

    • Ha, good to see you know what I mean then. In every country you need to be on your toes. Different rules. Hence I am moving back to just my own rules, otherwise it’s a circle that never ends. Good point about the peoples behavior towards money!

  4. flip says:

    hopefully i can transition to doing business while travelling too but i guess im still far behind compare to established blogs like you :-)

  5. Jenny says:

    I’ve had my business for 8 years and I’ve learned to always get the expectations out in the open in the beginning of the relationship/project. That way you both know what to expect and there are no surprises at the end.

    • Unfortunately in many countries putting things out in the open doesn’t work. People take offense, prefer a gentler approach etc. But, I travel to so many different cultures it’s not practical to bend over backwards as one person for everyone. So yes, I now have up front rules.

  6. I do not believe that there are poor countries, there are only poor cultures. Poverty, outside of extreme circumstances, is a mentality.

    I like the way you handled this situation, it shows that you really know the cultural contexts that you operate in — you played the game and won. You took the Asian “back door” approach masterfully.

    Though these are the moves of an impoverished culture — using friendship as a crutch to rip someone off. The methods of German upfrontness, while may be taken as rude in some cultures, are ultimately necessary for doing business.

    You don’t eradicate poverty by giving the poor money and things, you eradicate poverty by changing culture.

    • “using friendship as a crutch to rip someone off” This is one of the biggest problems one encounters when traveling. As a newcomer you are trying hard to make friends, but as a long term traveler you are also trying to earn. Getting the balance right is very difficult!

  7. Renny says:

    So the lesson learned is – never mind culture, go with ruthless business approach?

    • Yes, in a way. There seems to be too many cultural obstacles for a one person foreigner to overcome to be culturally “correct” in business. I think setting your own rules out from the start negates this though. It simply puts the onus on you to provide what you initially said you can.

  8. yee says:

    Friend is Friend, Joke is Joke and Business is Business.

    I agree with what Tim have to say, the Love of money is the root of all kind of evil, however, don’t forget that speculation is the mother of evil as well. I can’t recall how many times in my life seeing how friends or even siblings become enemies because of money/business.
    Therefore, unless you have clearly stated from the beginning, One can never assume the other party will agree to pay.
    Or, unless you have found someone who’s agree to do a free work for you or you agreed to give free service, everything have to be confirmed from the beginning. Never assume anything!

    Different cultures have different ways of doing business. I have never done business with Filipino so I can’t say much but yet, ‘Fees Upfront’ is the way of doing business everywhere…at least the type of professional business all over the world. Nevertheless, don’t charge too much for the consultation fees though or people will run away :)

    • Good, points. Just one thing I am constantly told over here. If you lower your price too much, then people tend to think it must not be that good! Hence they go for high prices. This is the biggest battle I find.

  9. Denise says:

    I’ve had problems being paid for some travel articles, and once even from an agency that got commissions from a very famous airline for their in-flight magazine. In this case, there is no polite way. I had to send them an email threatening not only legal action but also the spreading of the story within the travel writing community. It worked, and I always got the money shortly after. When I tried politely, I just got a lot of stupid excuses.

  10. In such situations it’s best to think of it as a “Cheap Education” about doing “business” or seeking “employment” in the Philippines or most of the developing countries in the world as your time is worth maybe U$10 to U$20 / 8 to 12 hour day. generally speaking people from the wealthier G20 nations over value their time and worth which has lead to the present recession and high unemployment in the States I’ve been in Asia since 78 and operating small businesses in the Philippines since 86 which started out as hobbies.