1. China is “quite relevant” to me and my life. Read this blog if you need more details.
  2. I used to work for one of the world’s largest “corporate travel management” conglomerates.

These are the reasons I’ve chosen the headline for this entry that I have.

If you don’t have the background yet, my headline answers the question I asked yesterday, in response to this AP story.

I seem to have found the answer in a Tacoma News Tribune story, “Travel nightmare made in Taiyuan,”which the rest of the folks commenting on Mr. Nelson’s experience hadn’t run across yet.

As you read what other bloggers, pundits and those commenting on their sites are saying, however, you’ll notice that several other headlines and angles are possible with this story, such as:

  • AP Editors Approve Story Unfit for Print
  • AP Writer Pens Xenophobic Drivel
  • Intel Employee’s Foibles in China Fuel Fire of ‘Inept Americans Abroad’ Mythology
  • Despite Help from Chinese Good Samaritans, U.S. Business Traveler and AP Writer Greeting Him at Airport Paint Disparaging Picture of Modern China
  • Intel Leaves U.S. Employees Unprepared for International Travel
  • Taiyuan Brothels Exhibit Tenacious Customer Acquisition Policies

There may be something to each of these angles–for me, it’s discouraging to see such an emphasis on the perceived “negatives” of Mr. Nelson’s Taiyuan adventure (dog meat, spitting locals, cockroaches, smell of sewage), as well as what can be perceived as an American traveler’s lack of resourcefulness (slept in his clothes, spent hours wandering around seemingly lost, unable to find sustenance apart from “boiled squid” and alleged “dog meat”).

In fact, Mr. Nelson has received quite a drumming on some China-related and travel-related blog sites, such as Shanghaiist and Peter Neville-Hadley’s “Away on Business” travel blog. And while I wish the original news stories made him look a bit more resourceful, I’m going to say the following in his defense.

He’s an Intel engineer of some sort, not a “China Expert” or even a seasoned traveler, necessarily. It is likely not part of his job description to “speak Chinese” or “be able to extract oneself from a foreign, unfamiliar location and return to the U.S. on one’s own resources.”

U.S. corporations routinely send employees on brief jaunts to foreign offices without “cultural preparation” because the expectation is that (1) they’ll be met, hosted and chauferred by other employees or partners whose job it is to do so and (2) they’re being sent for meetings or technical work or training…not impromptu cultural survival.

In short, this was not Mr. Nelson’s fault. His employer and the travel company it has contracted with are responsible for his travel arrangements. Nelson and other business travelers shouldn’t have to stop and wonder whether their next scheduled flight will erroneously land them in Timbuktu. Or Taiyuan. No, that responsibility has been outsourced and paid for.

Mr. Nelson even called the travel company that created his itinerary to double-check the next leg of his itinerary and was assured that all was well: Get on the plane; it will take you to Taiwan.

It didn’t.

Which brings me back to my headline and the initial cause of this unnecessary drama.

The company that’s making money from Mr. Nelson’s employer (American Express Travel and Intel, respectively, as we glean from the AP and News Tribune stories) made the following blunders:

First, American Express Travel booked Mr. Nelson a hotel room in Taiwan, where he should have been going next, but booked his flight to Taiyuan.

As one Shanghaiist reader pointed out, however, the airport in Taiwan, “in the neighboring city of Taoyuan…sounds almost exactly like Taiyuan” to some ears.

But because too many city and place names are similar or the same, travel agents are typically trained to deal with airports and cities in terms of their three-letter codes, not their proper names. (ORD for O’Hare. PEK for Beijing. SEA for Seattle and SeaTac. And so on.)

Taiyuan’s code is TYN.

Taipei’s Chiang Kai Shek airport, in the neighboring city of Taoyuan, is TPE.

Yes, they both start with ‘T’, but….

The second American Express Travel miscue: In Hong Kong, thinking that the ‘Total Flight Time’ on his itinerary looked too long for a Hong Kong to Taiwan flight, Mr. Nelson called the travel agency and was assured (a different employee or the same one, we don’t know) that his itinerary was correct, and that after a pit-stop in Fuzhou, he’d hop right on over to Taiwan.

Those of us familiar with Chinese history, politics and contemporary affairs would know, of course, that there are no direct flights from Fuzhou to Taibei. American Express Travel apparently does not.

The third American Express Travel error, which the AP and News Tribune stories don’t address, but which I realized after just a few minutes of further research:

Instead of leaving Mr. Nelson essentially without help and helpless in Taiyuan, they could have…uh…just referred him to their American Express Travel/China International Travel Service affiliate office in Taiyuan.

Yes, unfortunately, you read that right.

And so to close:

Dear American Express Travel,

Just a note to let you know that you have an AMEX/CITS affiliate office in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China (TYN).

It’s been in your network since December of 2002.

In case another of your managed corporate travelers is ever stranded there and calls you for help, you can refer them to this affiliate at: Shanxi CITS | CITS Building | Pingyang Road 38 |Taiyuan | (86351)4062090 | wss126@hotmail.com.

This contact information, in case it’s not in your records, can be found on http://cits.net/travel/tc.jsp, which is easily found via a quick Google search, and which also announces that:

On December 03, 2002, China International Travel Service Head Office and American Express entered into a new and exciting partnership to develop the growing leisure travel market in China. American Express Travel Service Network International (TSNI) will expand its existing network of travel offices in China by appointing CITS as the only lead franchise partner, to identify and acquire like-minded partner agencies to join the fastest growing CITS-Amex Leisure Travel Service Network.

Yes, it’s a “leisure” travel branch, but I suppose they could be bothered to help out the corporate travel colleagues on the other end of the phone.

And a final tip, as Mr. Nelson suggested to the News Tribune: “Some protective methods need to be put into place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Have a Nice Day!

Mark Baker