Top 5 myths about travel as a management consultant


Travel is a defining characteristic of management consulting regardless of your company. From Bain to Accenture, from McKinsey to Towers Perrin. If you’re a consultant, you can expect to become familiar with acronyms like LGA, LAX, and ORD. You can expect to spend enough time in hotels that the staff will recognize and greet you by name.

However, there is A LOT of misinformation on this topic.

Here are the TOP FIVE myths about consulting travel and my thoughts about the “broader truth” behind each.

The BAD MYTHS:

#1 Consultants spend months, often years, in the farthest flung cities where the weather is freezing and Arby’s is considered fine-dining

This is the most oft-repeated consultant traveling myth, and one that turns many away from giving the profession a serious thought (and also the biggest category of investment banker jokes). That’s not to say the truth is glamorous – reality lies somewhere in the middle. Most management consultants throughout their careers will find themselves in 1 or 2 cities that have few redeeming qualities. But the majority of the time – work is focused in large cities (think San Francisco, California and not Paris, Texas) and developed countries (think Johannesburg, South Africa and not Tallinn, Estonia).

Paris, Texas-based companies need consultants too – but most likely, they won’t be able to afford the services of Big-3 caliber firms. If you work for regionally-focused consulting companies with functional expertise (eg, environment, tax), your chances of spending significant time in such places will increase

At the end of the day – lifestyle matters to consultants. Partners avoid sending teams to lifestyle poor areas for extended periods of time (as often the resulting negative feedback can hurt the Partner’s performance as well). And if they do, there are typically compensating mechanisms (“spend 3 months here, and I will strongly support your interest in a Latin-American project when staffing comes around).

#2 Consulting travel means a frantic, neverending procession of deadlines.

You’ll be building Powerpoint Presentations on a trans-Pacific flight thru the night, land in Foreign Country A and rush to the client where you’re already 15 minutes late for the crucial meeting. Give the presentation – the whole time, your manager and team will be glaring at you for unforgivable typos in the slide “deck”. Once the meeting finishes, the team piles into another taxi and races to the airport to catch a flight to Foreign Country B. And the whole cycle starts anew.

Another convenient myth that investment bankers like to share to make themselves feel better at 4am on a Friday night. The truth here is also somewhere in the middle. Travel projects – particularly international ones – face a higher degree of pressure to succeed (both from the client and from firm leadership). You will face more deadlines, and will be expected to spend part of flight time working. You’ll also face at least a few deadlines where it seems like you rush from the airport to the client and back again. But “a few” is the key phrase here. In the course of a 3-month project, expect this to happen 2-3 times maximum.

#3 You have no choice about where you work

The office staffing manager sends you an email of the following variety:

“Your next project will be in [RANDOM TOWN], Wisconsin. We’ve booked the team at the local Days Inn for the next 3 months. Please find the cheapest flight leaving tomorrow morning. Sincerely, your Staffer.”

Not true. Your choice in projects – choice of location, choice of “function” (eg strategy, operations, organization, etc), choice of client – depends on two key factors: your PERFORMANCE ON PRIOR PROJECTS and your SENIORITY. But even the worst-performing, most junior-level consultants can sway staffing decisions in their favor. I will write about this more when I hit the “how to succeed at your new consulting job” series of posts, but here’s what you need to know:

Staffing is never a one-way process. Based on your background, your interests, your stated preferences – and your ability to build relationships with firm leadership – you can exercise sway over staffing decisions starting on Day 1 of your job at a management consulting firm.

If you find yourself staffed consistently on projects of lower-interest in less-attractive locales, there are several reasons why this is happening:

1) You don’t care enough to express your opinions to firm leadership, to staffing, even to your team 2) You aren’t proactive in meeting partners, managers, etc – people who REALLY make the staffing decisions 3) You haven’t learned the art of effective “pushback” – the ability to express your honest opinions without offending those around you

The GOOD MYTHS:

#4 Consultants travel in style – business class flights, filet mignon steak dinners, new countries and continents explored every week

The opposite extreme of BAD MYTH #1, but equally misrepresentative. Similar answer as before – aspects are true (business class flights for select projects and distances, the occasional fancy dinners with the team and/or client, some international projects will see you traverse 5 countries in the course of 1-2 weeks). But this is the exception and it comes with its own baggage, in the form of BAD MYTH #2. What is the norm, then? Expect to spend 50% of your time on domestic projects, traveling to cities like Houston, Raleigh, Chicago, and Seattle. You may fly business class, but you can expect an equal number of economy-class flights (particularly given lack of long-term scheduling flexibility). And there will be fancy dinners – but these come typically after several long nights and high-pressure meetings. And work dinners are not like dinners with your frat buddies or school tennis club. Not at all.

*Recent macroeconomic conditions may have caused the pendulum to swing closer to #1*

#5 You become Mr. Uber-Platinum-Gold-Diamond-Titanium Status for Life

You receive free upgrades on every flight, every hotel room. You accumulate enough frequent user points/miles/etc to enjoy free vacations for the rest of your life

Again, the truth is a more moderate version of this myth. Many consultants will rack up serious points – especially the longer you’ve been a consultant and the more senior you are – and will have “Status” on every major airline and hotel chain. At my peak, I was Starwood Platinum, AA Platinum, and middle-tier status on a few other airlines and hotel chains. But I’ve already run out of free hotel nights and free flights (sorry, readers!). And Platinum status doesn’t last forever – otherwise, these Status programs would be major money losers. The minute you quit consulting is the minute you’ll lose it. Hopefully it’s not a big enough loss to sway your decision – but it is one factor of the consulting lifestyle that can become addicting, particularly over extended periods of time.

Wondering what other myths about the management consulting industry and career you believe to be true? Our 3 Month Mastery will break it down for you – what to expect, how to roll with the industry and come up on top.

  • steward

    Fabulous post !

    The mention of art of effective

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  • ISS

    Hi

    I have just started reading your blog and prob. this is more of a general comment rather than on the topic above..

    I have just finished a summer internship with a leading investment bank and I have almost decided not to go back there; maybe not even the same industry. Consulting has always appealed to me but I have never really tried to find out much about; prob. because everyone around me wants to get into investment banking. However, now I’m seriously thinking of getting into Consulting, the more it seems to be the right thing for me.

    Even during the course of my internship, I heard lots of comments about Consultancy; one of them being that its all fluff and its almost like conning people. would love to hear your comments on this. Also, my final aim is to get into entrepreneurship of some form, so would you recommend 2-3 years with a consulting firm or with the investment research division/IBD at a leading investment bank as I want to learn the max I can about a business. Please note that I will be starting as a graduate(Analyst level) so I will prob be doing the grunt wok anyway.
    Thanks

  • Marriott

    If you have enough years (not sure the number) of platinum status on Marriott, they will give you lifetime platinum status permanently.

  • That’s very interesting, Sam – I did not take it from that site, I would never copy content. I published this article – at least the first version – back in 2008. Their article does have surprising similarities though, but I’ll take that as a compliment ;)

  • Gia

    Firstly, as a businessman, secondly, as an educated person You should reconsider calling any country undeveloped.

  • Rob

    Wow you’re right! All countries are at the same level of development. Lets annex Haiti and all the great benefits they have to bring to the table!

  • Does it Matter?

    You would see more (in fact, overwhelming) in your first 3 months of consulting, then it will likely pleateau out for the next 2-3 years (in terms of exposure, I’m not talking about responsibility level or analytical thinking).

    IBD, not sure.  But people seem to jump faster in IBD (albeit within industry), so you might see more?

    If you’re thinking about MANAGING companies, ironically I wouldn’t think that 2-3 years in firms is the way to go.  If I were a graduate level I would jump after 1, 2 years max and head up a top-level mgmt in industry (smaller company).  Who cares if it fails.  No one seems to care anymore, hahaha

    that being said, you posted it a year ago. Wonder where you’d be now…

  • Chris

    To anyone who is thinking about consulting, this is a very valid article!! Nice work!

  • Ingvar

    In general, I really appreciate the quality of this article and your insight. However, I do not agree with you portraying Estonia as a backwoods country while making SA appear all civilized. The fun fact here is that Estonia has about twice the GDP per capita of South Africa!

    So stick to business and refrain from sloppy development economics related remarks; they make you seem less of a professional than you actually are.

  • Ben

    Does anyone have any idea which consulting firms do and do not allow you to do alternative travel, i.e. going somewhere besides home on Thursdays or whenever you’re normally scheduled to?

    Thanks!

  • Chadogea

    hi, i got an internship at Accenture in technology consulting. how hard would it be for me to get a full time offer in MBB? Thanks!

  • ManagementConsultant

    If you are thinking of consulting make sure you know what you are sacrificing.  It’s not easy to keep up with family, friends or significant others.  I’ve had a few significant others over the course of my career and they ALL don’t get the lifestyle or can’t handle it.  I’ve been doing it for years and I would trade places with anyone to be close to home (I’m writing this in a hotel).  Don’t get me wrong, I love the challenging work but just like any job it has it’s pros and cons.  I’ve been working for over 6 years in one of the companies mentioned in this post.  Just be prepared if you’re thinking of getting into the industry.

  • jennyrae

    Thanks for your post – you sound lonely and sad! Have you ever thought about leaving? Why have you stayed? Might be interesting for other readers to know. Post or email us!

  • jennyrae

    Hi there – first, congrats on your internship. It depends on your geography and the types of clients/projects you end up leading. You could transfer into McKinsey BTO more easily than strategy – but Accenture technology to strategy isn’t a clear parallel path. Email us for more details.

  • Karl

    You know, Tallinn is probably more developed then Johannesburg.

  • MBB Associate

    As an MBB consultant I want to disagree with #2 being a myth:

    “#2 Consulting travel means a frantic, neverending procession of deadlines. You’ll be building Powerpoint Presentations on a trans-Pacific flight thru the night, land in Foreign Country A and rush to the client where you’re already 15 minutes late for the crucial meeting.”
    I had a 4-month long project where every Monday we would meet in the airport at around 6AM, our manager would give us our work and keep us busy till our flight left before 7, we would work on the entire flight and give him updates mid-flight so that he could “steer” us, then we would land in another country near our client, get in a taxi, and spend the entire taxi ride working, arrive at the client, give the presentation immediately, then work till around 11PM, go to our hotels, keep working till 1AM, then get up the next day at 7 and keep going at this pace.Rather than “stressful flight working” happening 2-3 times over 2-3 months, it happened 2 times a week, 4 months straight, with a few weeks involving more travel and having it happen more often.This definitely was not a myth for me and a fact of life. Perhaps not everyone has an equally shitty experience, but I certainly did.

  • MBB Associate

    Estonia also has higher per-capita than China, does not mean that Tallinn is more developed than Beijing.

    The fact is that while South Africa, as a whole, is not very developed, Johannesburg is a business and economic emporium that is extremely developed. The city of Johannesburg, where I’ve worked for 3 months, certainly has all the amenities, entertainment, night life, infrastructure, and businesses that you would expect from a global metropolis. Johannesburg > Tallinn, your relative per-capita GDP’s notwithstanding.

  • Sean

    Agreed. And the girls are far more attractive.

  • Sean

    Just for my own curiosity – was this for a Private Equity focused team?  I only ask because I’m considering a role at an MBB that would be PE focused.

  • Mark

    This has to be written by an American…. Talin Estonia is now one of the Go To destinations in the Baltic region…. And Estonia will be at 75 percent EU wealth average by 2020. As a South African living in the UK and a management consultant I know where I would rather go….

  • Weathered Consultant

    One of the key KPIs is ‘billability’ or ‘utilisation. Smtg. around the 80% mark. Go figure!

  • jennyrae

    Hey Ben – I can speak from my experience at Bain. We had a budget, so if we wanted to buy a cheaper ticket that wove in a weekend, we were able to do that. However, firms frequently change their policies on travel, and we wouldn’t recommend alternative for any part of your first three months at the firm.

  • Dave

    I am considering a consultant career but I’d like to get your opinion on whether I should go for it. I have 3 year work experience as Software System Engineer for DoD Aerospace industry. I have a bachelor in Computer Engineering and a MBA, none of these two degree from a super prestigious school like Wharton or MIT. I am 27, single, no family ties, looking for more travel and personal growth opportunity. My Engineering job pay me quite a lot, and promising promotion to management which will have significant raise, but I know management too well to know it’s not going to be my thing. So, i am considering entrepreneurship or consulting. Do you have any advise for me.

  • MC Team

    Check your e-mail Dave. We’ve responded there.

  • Jubilee

    The first 3 myths happen to be 100% true if you work for EY

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  • Dicks

    Guys this article is not written to compare or fight over countries – just examples, just read it as Testonia and Aouth Safrica and move on, pls.

  • Grace Kadzere

    @Jonas, unless you work for the crappiest consulting firm can you worry about staying alive in Johannesburg. I live here and have worked with non-South African consultants, and most of them get housed in the northern suburbs where you have more grass and trees than New York. And having traveled to the Middle East, North America and most of Africa for work, Johannesburg is way better than a lot of places. No consulting company from the BBM to the Big 4 actually do any work in the shanty areas where crime is high! Most of their business is around Rosebank and Sandton, look those up and let me know what you think, because those areas do not in any way look like Africa, if you’ve explored Africa beyond one city. Johannesburg is made up of three classes and that translates to the business sector as well. Am still to hear of a consulting firm that ever did work in the less developed areas of Johannesburg or where their consultants had to worry about staying alive.

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  • Management Consultant

    Hi, thank you for this very informative blog! I like to hear you shed some light on the management consultancy practice in KPMG. Does it match up to the other firms listed here?

  • jim

    i.e., Bain…..