A Whole New World: How to Travel in Emerging Markets

Business travelers unite! We know you’re on the road and always on the lookout for ways to make the most of your time. We’re on the hunt for the best business travel tips. How can you get through the JFK airport that much quicker? Or stay safe while you’re on the road? How can you be alert at your meeting, despite your draining red-eye flight? To gather up these tips, we thought we’d look no further than the business travelers here at Concur. Move over, Munich. You’ve got some serious competition in Kuala Lumpur.

From Jakarta to Bangkok, booming business development has executives inking deals in countries that may still struggle socially and economically. The result is an interesting mix of cultural differences, language barriers and quirky business norms that can make business travel in emerging markets hard to navigate.

Bruce Grenfell, Concur’s vice president of security and compliance support services, is an expert in business travel in Asia. After half a decade of business trips – through Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore – his advice for travelers with Manila on the mind?

Do your homework. “Always research the destination you are traveling to,” says Grenfell. “Know where your embassy is. Every time you travel to an emerging country, it is worth understanding how to behave and what to do to ensure safety.”

The U.S. Department of State’s travel website is a great resource for travel warnings, diplomatic or embassy office locations, safety and medical facility information for every country on earth.

Learn some phrases. Yes, it’s true, international business now functions largely in English. But don't let it lull you to sleep, Westerner: when you travel to Asia for business, a mite of knowledge about local customs will pay great dividends. “Particularly in Asian countries, I’ve found the people are more appreciative and respectful when you attempt to speak their language,” says Grenfell.

Relax – you don’t have to speak it well. But you may be rewarded for the effort later in your business dealings. The most useful phrases to learn? “Please. Thank you. It’s a beautiful country. I like your food. And – the most important – where is the bathroom?” says Grenfell.

Lean on a translator. Beyond polite phrases, you may need some help understanding your local peers. Grenfell recommends hiring a translator to ride along with you, particularly when your dealings take you out of big cities and into rural areas where English is definitely uncommon. The language barrier is one of the biggest challenges to working in emerging markets.

Other challenges are cultural. Knowing when to bow, when to avoid eye contact, when to shake hands and when to hug it out are all part of the unique joys of international business travel. But these behaviors vary significantly from country to country in Southeast Asia, and being mindful of cultural norms is an important way to gain respect and open your worldview.

First impressions are crucial. More than most places, image matters in Asia. Looking sharp at a business meeting not only reflects well on you, it also indicates respect for your host. “A business trip to Asia offers the opportunity to cast a critical eye at your wardrobe,” says Grenfell. “Do my socks look good? In Asia it’s common to remove your shoes on entering some rooms – even in offices and restaurants. Make sure your socks are as presentable as your shoes.”


Also ask, is your suit light enough? The weather in most Asian business capitals ranges from balmy to blistering. “Then there’s the humidity,” says Grenfell. “It’s hard to look competent when you’re sweating.”


Finally, will you need a razor? In the West it’s common to see “style icons” like George Clooney wear a tuxedo with a face full of stubble, but Asian businesspeople aren’t much charmed by a five o’clock shadow.“Facial hair is uncommon,” says Grenfell. “Respect your hosts and shave.”

Loading next article