Highlights include a sauna in Finland, a journey to Stonehenge, a Paris walk and a teahouse in Old Shanghai.
There I was, in a steamy sauna in Finland, in the midst of an important business meeting. Our topic that day almost 20 years ago was the emerging market in the United States for fire-resistant mattress materials.
As steam swirled around us, we traded insights and opinions. Oh, and there was one other detail I should mention: We were in a state of complete undress. Yes, we were buck naked. I was following the well-established maxim: When in Finland, do as the Finns do. And they wear nothing in the sauna but a smile.
That sauna session was one of my most unusual experiences in almost four decades of international travel in my coverage of the mattress industry. I had been told beforehand that the Finns loved their saunas and I should be open to the experience. So, I fearlessly entered the steam room and talked business, acting like this was just another meeting. Truth be told, I was sweating.
That trip to Finland was memorable in two other ways. I was without luggage for the first two days of the trip — the only time that happened in all my years of travel. And I had reindeer steaks for dinner. Sorry, Rudolph.
International travel was one of the highlights of my career. I visited mattress factories, suppliers and retailers around the world, learning firsthand that there are many ways to make and sell mattresses, not all of which are applicable to the U.S. market. In China, I saw sprawling mattress factories and slept on rock-hard mattresses. In Vietnam, I saw a huge mattress-manufacturing complex organized in a series of separate buildings. In France, I saw mattress stores that looked like art galleries.
My business travels also took me to Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Spain and Taiwan. They enabled me to meet dynamic bedding leaders around the world and to see the operations they built. They also gave me a chance to see some of the world’s most impressive sights. Those are the memories that linger.
In Sydney, I sat down to dinner with Allyn Beard and his team at A.H. Beard in a harbor restaurant that looked out at the Sydney Opera House, whose sail-like concrete shells glistened in the distance. That famous structure is 50 years old this year.
In England, I saw something much older: the prehistoric rocks of Stonehenge. Rising from the Salisbury Plain, the circles of towering stones remain mysterious today. I contemplated the secrets of Stonehenge on my way back to London after visiting the immaculate Vispring mattress factory in Plymouth.
In Paris, I walked along the banks of the Seine River with bedding veteran Kurt Ling. We ate roasted chestnuts that we bought from a street vendor after touring the world’s largest collection of Monet paintings in the Musée d’Orsay. Earlier on that trip, we visited mattress retailers in London and Paris.
In Israel, I floated in the salty Dead Sea with Hollandia International CEO Avi Barssessat, and I visited his mattress factory near the Gaza Strip. I also had time on that trip to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, experiences I have shared with students in my Sunday school class over the years.
In Madrid, where I visited Rafael Gonzalez at his Flex Group headquarters, I saw Casa Botin. That restaurant, founded in 1725 behind the Plaza Mayor, bills itself as the world’s oldest restaurant and is famed for its suckling pig. Ernest Hemingway, who loved Madrid, favored a corner table upstairs, where he liked to write in the mornings before meeting his friends there for lunch. It was fun to walk in Hemingway’s footsteps.
In Shanghai, which was on my itineraries for three of my four trips to China, I visited Yu Garden, a classic Chinese garden dating back to the 1500s. I navigated the nine-turn bridge, said to ward off evil spirits, and sat in the Huxinting Teahouse, built on stilts in the middle of a lake. There, in an oasis of serenity, I sipped fine Chinese tea and was thankful for the world of wonders that my mattress travels opened for me.