A focus group project doesn’t necessarily involve travel—FMG certainly conducts a lot of focus groups here in our Arlington, VA office, and remote and online methods are being used more and more as the technological options expand. But when the goal of a project is to collect qualitative data from a diverse population of respondents, chances are this involves a moderator packing a suitcase and heading out on the road.
In the past few years of traveling the country to moderate groups, I've developed a few rules and want to share some tips to ensure your work goes smoothly and that you stay healthy - physically and mentally.
Working on the Road
During business travel I generally find that I have to make sure that both the out-of-town project goes well, and that things back in the office run smoothly.
My guidelines for this include:
- Make sure your travel schedule allows enough time before data collection starts. I try extremely hard not to travel to a location on the same day I am scheduled to moderator a group. Sometimes this isn't feasible due to budget or timing issues, but when it's possible this works best. First, because it provides a cushion in case of cancelled flights or bad weather (I literally have nightmares about being stuck in an airport and not making it to my scheduled groups). And second, because travelling is exhausting, and I am much more focused and present for the conversation if I haven't just fought my way through baggage claim, the rental car counter, etc.
- Establish your level of connection. Most of us can't afford to go on the road and not pay attention to emails and phone calls, but it's good to make it clear to coworkers and clients before you leave just how available you will be. If a long travel day or a big time difference is going to make it difficult to respond to things quickly, make sure people know that ahead of time, so they're not surprised by any lag in your responses.
- Identify what other work you'll be able to do best on the road. Being away from the office can sometimes mean that you have long stretches of uninterrupted time on airplanes or in hotels when you can get lots done, but I find that some of work is better travel work than others. Personally, I find it difficult to do detailed, logistical planning sort of work on the road, but planes and hotels are very conducive to the writing and editing that I struggle to find time for at home. You might find the reverse—just be aware of what will work for you and make sure you're taking work with you that you will actually be able to do.
Taking Care of Yourself Away from Home
Before any good qualitative research can happen, you must be sure that you physically and mentally healthy. I find that being away from home can be both a pleasant break and an exhausting grind — here are the tips I've found to help me feel good and be ready to work:
- Eat well and stay hydrated. Eating healthy foods when you're out of your routine is so difficult, but I have found that I truly feel better and perform better when I don't fall prey to deep fried bar food in airports or candy from hotel vending machines. In addition to ordering lots of salads, I bring my own stash of snacks with me so I never get too desperate if a flight is delayed or the restaurant options late at night in a small town aren't what I hoped. I generally bring fancy granola bars, nuts, little pouches of oatmeal I can make in my hotel room, and a variety of herbal tea bags. And one of the best things I learned (and there were lots of great things) in my first RIVA moderator training course was that no matter how much water you're drinking on the road, you should drink some more.
- Exercise. I used to never bother with trying to get in a workout on the road—working it into a day of focus groups and packing all my gear seemed like way too much trouble. But again, I feel so much better if I make the effort to visit the hotel gym. And if even that feels like too much effort, or if the running shoes just didn't make it into the suitcase, there are loads of exercise videos online that can be done in your pajamas without ever leaving the hotel room. I like the Ballet Beautiful videos, which are low-impact and won't bother any downstairs neighbors.
- Anti-bacterial hand wipes. Every time I sit down on an airplane, I use several of those anti-bacterial handwipes to clean everything around me—the tray table, seatbelts, little air vent things, and arm rests. It may make me look a little odd (bonus: my seatmates rarely try to talk to me!) but it makes me feel better. In hotel rooms, I do a similar wipe down on a few high-traffic areas such as doorknobs, light switches, and the remote control. Being sick away from home is miserable, so I work to avoid that when I can.
- Protect your alone time. I think most people assume that focus group moderators are extroverts who love nothing more than talking to people all day. I do like talking to people and I like moderating groups, but I am also an introvert who needs time to recover from all of that talking. If you're on the road with coworkers or clients, it can sometimes be difficult to carve out time by yourself, but if you need that time to recharge, be protective of it. Most people will understand if you say, "I'm going to go back to my room for a while/skip dinner/meet up with you later, just so I can regroup a little." (Saying that you want to go to the gym also works here.)
Finally, it's important to remember that being on the road can be fun, especially when you end up seeing things and having experiences that you would otherwise never have run across. I had one of the best meals of my life at a restaurant in Davenport, IA. In Wichita, Kansas, I went for a run on a trail behind my hotel and came around a curve to see a spectacular sculpture—a stylized Indian Chief called the Keeper of the Plains—in the middle of the river. And I quite like taking the train, so when focus groups are in a city near Washington—like Philadelphia—I get to watch the scenery roll by for a couple of hours. These kinds of things make airport delays and hotel food worth it.