Barnett on Business Travel



July 21, 1991 -- Chicago commodities trader Terrance Morton was convinced he struck gold in Honolulu but couldn't figure out how to mine it. On a quasi- business/vacation trip he was lounging around the pool at the Westin Ilikai catching up on his trade magazines. A Japanese guest from Tokyo on the next chaise pointed to his copy of Futures, bible of the commodities industry, smiled and said in English, "Me, commodity broker."

"He knew 10 words of English and that was it," recalls Morton.

"But I'd been looking for a local correspondent in Tokyo to monitor positions and feed me information. I wanted to talk to him but couldn't."

He could have hired a translator but that was a time-consuming hassle. Instead, he dialed an 800 number and within 10 minutes was chatting away through an intermediary. Today, Morton is working with an English-speaking member of the man's firm in Japan.

What Morton discovered, and a growing number of travelers are plugging into, is Language Line, a new and novel translation service from AT&T. Designed both for Americans traveling overseas and for foreigners visiting the United States, Language Line lets you patch directly into an English-speaking translator from anywhere in the world and decipher 143 languages. Cost: $3.50 a minute, plus the price of the phone call.

For the American abroad, Ma Bell has thoughtfully set up toll-free international number in 24 countries. From other countries, you simply dial (408) 648-5871 - pay the cost of that international call - and the translator charge. The translation fee can be charged to different credit cards.

Not surprisingly, hotels are rushing in to let their guests reach out whenever there's a failure to communicate, and time is precious. Rates vary but some are quite low.

Currently, all Westin Hotels and Resorts, all Crown Sterling Suites, and a number of Hiltons, Hyatts, Radissons, Marriotts, Sheraton and Embassy Suites have signed up. Hertz Rent-A-Car has signed up with Language Line as a help-line.

And not just for their wheeling- and-dealing business travelers. For anyone away from home, in a foreign country and in a jam, Language Line can be a lifesaver. Literally.

Invented by a bilingual policeman in San Jose, Calif., who sold the idea to AT&T, Language Line started out as a volunteer program to save lives on 911 calls.

Jeff Munks, the ex-cop, who is now Language Line's marketing director, says he studied Spanish but when he went to Spain as a student, all he could say was "where is the library, please pass the bread and my name is Jeff."

After living with Spanish families he came back conversant, but by the time he hit the beat as a patrolman, there were 60,000 New Vietnamese residents in San Jose.

In an emergency where every second counts, confusion reigned and understanding suffered, says Munks.

"Our simple volunteer-lines emergency communications just kept evolving."

Munks wastes no words in driving home the value of his creation, especially in summer when travel is heaviest.

"Say you're an American traveler in France, renting a car to visit a village and you take ill. You go to a local infirmary and the doctor speaks just enough English to scare the dickens out of you. You've got to tell him how it hurts, where it hurts, your family medical history and that you're allergic to a whole list of antibiotics. Are you going to feel comfortable with that doc's smattering of high school English?"

Instead, you can pick up the telephone in the doctor's office, dial toll free to the United States and an English/French interpreter "lets you communicate to your doctor accurately across two languages and two cultures," says Munks.

Hotels are helping guests communicate without picking up the phone.

Joe Kordsmeier, one of the hospitality industry's most sought-after consultants - he's overhauling Leona Helmsley's hotel empire - convinced other hoteliers they needed something other than staff translators to hurdle language barriers.

His 46-room Inn at Saratoga, a charming, woodsy corporate retreat favored by executives of Apple, Hewlett-Packard and their global guests, was a laboratory of sorts for AT&T and Munks.

At the time Language Line was in its infancy, another inventor created "Point Talk" (now called AT&T's "Travel Translator"), a card that comes in 123 languages.

"You simply point to key words on one side and the translation is on the other side," says Kordsmeier.

He uses the card and Language Line to make sure foreign guests are comfortable and to get their requests fulfilled instantly, without any embarrassment.

"You just pick up the phone in your room."

As the globe shrinks, hotels are becoming more responsive to their foreign guests. The 242-room Peninsula Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 55th in New York City just installed a high-tech telephone system called InnComm that controls room air conditioning, lighting, the television, and in addition it has its own small keyboard and screen that delivers critical information in six languages.

"It's extremely user-friendly and the guests love it," says general manager Manfred Timmel.

In Hong Kong, the Kowloon Hotel, designed expressly for business travelers, has a clever system that translates directions into Chinese.

"Just call up the front desk, tell us where your appointments are, and we print out exact instructions for your cabdriver," says a spokeswoman.

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.