Take A Break For Business' Sake

Challenging Holidays Can Hone New Skills or Inspire Fresh Courage

For 15 years, Leslie McGuirk has taken vacations with Earthwatch, helping scientists with environmental research. The 36-year-old owner of McGuirk's Quirks Design Co. in Portsmouth (N.H.) does not do it to boost business, yet her efforts have yielded notable bottom-line benefits.

On a 1991 research trip to Majorca, Spain, for example, she tripped over a dead bat, a creature she'd "always hated." But as biologist Keith Bowey lovingly explained the animal's form, she saw its beauty and sketched it. Several museum shops picked up her bat artwork, raising her visibility. Later, she was featured in a magazine as a designer with an environmental message. A Takashimaya executive saw the article, and now stores of Japan's luxury chain have "The World of Leslie McGuirk" boutiques, a licensing arrangement that she expects will increase revenue by at least 70%.

Not everyone will get as deeply involved--or lucky--as McGuirk. But vacations that challenge the mind, body, and spirit can improve one's ability to run a business. Problem-solving skills are honed on new problems (such as how to keep dolphins from getting bored in observation tanks), and a fresh perspective can inspire new ideas. Some of these "vacations" involve work, which may seem an odd way to relax, but breaking out of old molds can beat lying on a beach worrying about clients. Volunteer work, study tours, and adventure travel all provide a restorative break by diverting the mind with fresh challenges.

DEDUCTIBLE. It's not cheap, of course. Two weeks teaching business basics to former communists in Ukraine can run $2,400, not including airfare, but many volunteer tours are tax-deductible.

Entrepreneurs who take such vacations say the greatest benefits are personal rather than professional but translate indirectly into better business ability. Working with groups of strangers, for example, improves teamwork and interpersonal skills. Allan Ayers, an industrial logistics consultant in Inverness (Ill.), often has to retrain clients' workers during a crisis. Last September, he went on an eight-day Outward Bound trip sea-kayaking in Maine, the first of what is intended to be "annual personal challenge events." He says "it's hard to put your finger on how it feeds back directly," but as one of just two men in a group of nine, he'll "never again see two women in a meeting room with all men the same way." Facing the challenges such tours pose also boosts self-confidence. Lou Bergeron, 59, found the courage to start a new venture on his Outward Bound trip when he did things that scared him, such as diving at night into icy waters off Maine.

"BULLETPROOF." For others, it can lead to a change in business direction. In 1991, L.A.-based systems consultant Sharon Campbell helped scientists in the Australian outback gather data on the echidna, a gopher-like anteater. She loved the trip and later designed a database for the project. That experience honed her skills, as the program had to be superefficient to run on solar power and "basically bulletproof." She has made six trips back, and is shifting her business--hit by California's recession of the early '90s--from systems consulting to database management for environmental research.

Of course, challenging vacations aren't necessarily remote or arduous. A cooking course in a French chateau or three days of advanced driving lessons in San Francisco can impart new skills, confidence, and perspective. Remoteness has benefits, though. Business owners say being cut off from phone lines is an eye-opener. "I was worried about leaving my business for so long, but it was an opportunity to totally remove myself," says Nan Bailly, who left her Minnesota vineyard for two weeks to build a school in Costa Rica with Global Volunteers. "I was surprised at how invigorated I felt." The real surprise is that a high-effort holiday can be not only a satisfying break but also a professional boon.

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