If this piece has any e-discovery parallels at all, they are to do with project management and the contingencies of time and cost which turn up in any project. It is also about the apparently trivial things which flavour a user’s experience. I am attending three conferences in sequence, and will cover them in various posts. This one is mainly about the glue holding the conferences together – the journeys in between. Like any other form of service delivery, the small things make a difference.
The primary components in travelling work quite well really. Take railways: the concept of a set of parallel metal tracks, unimpeded by third parties, should be unbeatable as a service, with no major changes in principle since Brunel’s day. It is the people running it who f*** it up. Or flying: the idea that a large metal box can take to the air and put you down safely and on time half-way round the world remains remarkable all these years after Wilbur (or was it Orville?) flew a few feet across the dunes at Kittyhawk. The fact that you can look up, book and pay for all these things, research hotels at your destination, check the weather there and make contact with everyone who needs to know your plans, all from your desk, is pretty fantastic also, and that you can do most of that whilst in transit from a little box in your pocket even more so.
It is the little things which let it down though – lack of thought about details, or bloody-mindedness, or price. I am, for example, sitting on the floor at Bangkok airport whilst I type the beginning of this piece. Bangkok is a major airline transfer hub, a place where people from all over the world have to wait for an hour or four between flights. There is everything one could want here including, incongruously, Boots the Chemist and Whittards of Chelsea, but barely enough seating except at the gates. If we are sitting down, we are not adding to the footfall which drives the rents in this vast shopping centre in the middle of nowhere – and the simple way to keep us moving round the shops, they think, is to provide only a few seats. It is an attitude called “sod the customer”. It is a trivial point compared with things like the wings staying on but I will not choose to pass this way again if I can help it – and there is a choice.
I am, I suppose, stress-testing the system somewhat. The components of the plan were Ark Group’s e-Disclosure 2009 conference in London, the Sedona Conference cross-border conference in Barcelona, and Ark’s e-Discovery conference in Sydney. The catch was that the first two of these ran back-to-back and the third, being 23 hours’ travelling away, was only accessible by switching terminals on the way back from Barcelona and not going home in between. That’s three conferences in three countries, in 20 separate journeys, in ten days. Thanks to the Internet, the mechanics of setting all this up were not too onerous and, thanks to the recession, the cost was not prohibitive.
The London conference went well and will be covered in various posts yet to come. The only glitch arose because two of our speakers on Day 2 (which I was chairing) failed to show up. I had by then already made a speech and sat on two panels but, finding no volunteers to take the second vacated slot, I busked my way through another 45 minutes. I was lucky in my audience, which included a good number of articulate people with useful input, and in the times, which are interesting ones. I have done some conferences where you could provide, say, Winston Churchill and Tom Stoppard as the speakers, with a dancing chorus of naked beauties, and still get no obvious animation out of the audience. This was a good one for an unscripted impromptu session.
I brought that conference to a premature end because of the first contingency not allowed for in my travel plans – the London Underground strike. Politically-speaking, I should be quite pleased to see the RMT striking to bring London to a standstill. The sight of a powerful union leader bringing his members out for more pay and guaranteed job security whilst the rest of the world tightens its belt, should be a powerful factor in deciding whether Gordon Brown will condemn the Labour Party to only 18 years oblivion (as Jim Callaghan did in 1979) or sink it for ever. As the ship of state drifts rudderless, growing union strength becomes a symbol of government weakness – it is what did for Edward Heath’s Conservative government in February 1972 when he called a snap election on the platform “Who governs” (getting the answer “Not you”), as well as for Callaghan, who went out in May 1979 after losing a confidence vote. So, normally, I would sit in my office applauding those who struggled to work anyway and being pleased that Gordon Brown’s share of the vote is lower than Michael Foot’s was.
Not that day, however. The project plan required me to go home to Oxford that night to pick up my bag and get back across London to London City Airport for a 9.25 am flight. After an expensive taxi ride and a switch to the Docklands Light Railway, I made it with 20 minutes in hand, a margin which proved adequate. Not good for the nerves perhaps, but London City Airport is one organisation which works on the premise that the customer pays the bills and that the system is his servant not master.
This is an aside, but it is interesting how the clientele varies between destinations. The North American flights are full of earnest businessmen reading the FT and looking at spreadsheets. The Orlando route has children on it (I have a plan for that – if you really want children with you at the other end of your flight, why not leave yours at the airport and pick up someone else’s at your destination, swapping back when you return? So much cheaper and it spares you and your whining brats the eternal curses of those who just want to sleep). The trans-American flights have a mixture of copier salesmen with bovine lower jaws masticating gum, and people who look as if they have put their chickens in the overhead lockers. The East End of London to Southern Spain route has its own stereotype – I shared a row with three fat women with orange skins who, I decided, were off to sit it out at their villas whilst their men served out their sentences for armed robbery. “I need some spice in my life” said one, rather optimistically I thought, until I realised she meant “space”.
I usually research the best way from airport to city centre, and paid the price for not doing so when I had to part with over €30 to travel to a hotel which one can actually see from Barcelona airport. The £75 or so spent on cabs in those two days (across London and from and back to Barcelona Airport) were the only bad value items in this whole exercise. The cause is the same – no competition.
I will write separately about the Sedona Conference cross-border conference, much aided by the fact that Sedona’s very sensible rules bar participants from reporting on what is said. That should make for a short report. I left prematurely on hearing it announced that a woman at another conference had been barred from her flight out of Barcelona because she allowed only 90 minutes between check-in and flight – that is usually adequate (though not recommended) even at Heathrow. The cause, it turned out, lay in another racial stereotype – it was the afternoon, in Spain. A long queue had formed at one check-in desk, with no-one obviously in charge or bothered about the customer inconvenience. I went along the other windows, and found a little man having a quiet kip behind one of them who, once fully awake, was willing to issue my boarding pass.
And so to Heathrow and the grim brutality of Terminal 4. British Airways may be (as one of its rivals recently described it) “a pension liability with wings” but you cannot fault the attentiveness of the staff. One of my stock e-disclosure slides says that “you get what you pay for (and may not need much)”. Unlike some of its apparently cheap rivals, BA takes you to the airport contracted for, at more or less the time specified, and for the inclusive price offered at the time of contract which, in my case, was unbelievably good value. Someone said at an e-discovery conference recently that clients are not looking for good value any more, they are looking for low cost; well these prices were low-cost and from a world-class provider. I found out about them because I bothered to research them – why do lawyers not do the same before assuming that quality e-discovery services are automatically too expensive?
I am not, on the face of it, an obvious candidate for long-haul flights. Being six foot tall and on a tight budget (that is, not in Business Class) is not a great combination even before you take account of the fact that cigarettes and real coffee are about the only basic staples of life which I insist on. Going to conferences is, however, what the job is and, mixed as it is with working at home (where I can smoke when I wish and drink as much decent coffee as I like) is something which just has to be done whatever the downsides. I now see that boarding school in the 1960s and 1970s was the perfect training for this – you were on your own from Saturday lunch-time until Monday morning and the army, prison and long-haul flights seem small beer after that. The upside is a treat I don’t allow myself anywhere else – reading.
And so to Sydney and another object-lesson in customer relations. There is a wonderful railway which carries you from Sydney Airport to the city centre. All I wanted was a map to remind me which station was closest to my hotel, and I went to the information desk and just asked for one. We have become used to the idea in Britain that the badge “Customer Assistance” is usually worn by people who hate their fellow-man, hate their employer and their job, despise anyone who needs help, and generally, these days, are not fluent in English. We anticipate this by framing our requests bluntly and quickly. This man was having none of that. “Good morning”, he said in answer to my brief request for a map, “How are you today?” The upshot of the terribly polite conversation which ensued was that I missed a train by seconds and had to wait 15 minutes for the next one. Worth it, though (just), for the reminder that the world spinning a little more slowly is not necessarily all bad (and what is another 15 minutes after a day and a half in transit?).