Can a Small-Busines Owner Afford a Vacation?

Most entrepreneurs can come up with a host of reasons not to take a vacation. They worry about who'll watch the business while they're gone, whether cash is too tight for them to go, or if customers will put up with talking to someone other than an owner. Often just simple addiction to the business keeps them at home. For years I've sided with those business thinkers who argue that getting away allows you to refresh the mind and come back with new ideas and energy; I've disappeared for as much as three straight weeks during the summer. And, yes, I came back to the company with renewed vigor. Each time, the company managed to survive without me. (Article continued below...)

What a difference a recession makes. This year I took half the vacation I did last year. My family and I had a four-day break in Chicago after school let out, but I tied it into a major convention I wanted to attend. We also just completed our traditional mid-August holiday not by heading to the California coast as we have in the past, but by staying home. I took only two days off, rather than my usual week. Worried that in my absence we might miss a negative trend in inventory or accounts receivable or whatever, I stayed tethered to my desk, and hoped for better luck next year.

Call it lack of vacation in the time of recession. I'm not alone in cutting back holidays, or skipping them altogether. My physical therapist, who operates her own business, decided to take off only a few days this summer, in part because her husband, a self-employed graphic artist, isn't finding work like he used to. So they're living on her dime until the economy turns up more work for him. "Every day off," she told me, "is an expense." My friend Chris, who runs a food- delivery service focused on businesses, also didn't take a long vacation this summer. In contrast, he and his family spent a month in Italy two years ago. With business down 20 percent, not only does he not have the money, he also didn't want the distraction of a vacation.

The list goes on and on. One building contractor I know, who is still relatively busy, decided not to take any time off this year in order to focus on marketing and getting the jobs he had in the queue done on time. "Since most people don't expect contractors to get things done on time," he joked, "I figure sticking around and making sure my projects did could be my best calling card." A self-employed architect I know did take a week off, but he and his family decided it best to make home their base. "Pretty obvious why," he said without self-pity.

By late August the news would seem to have sealed shut any hopes the travel industry had of resurrecting vacations in 2009. The number of Americans filing unemployment claims spiked well above expectations to 558,000 on Aug. 12, while foreclosures continued their upward climb. The stock market tanked by week's end and continued on Monday. No amount of sweet talking about economic prospects looking better by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke could erase the feeling of many small businesspeople that the recession is far from over. "It may be looking better for Wall Street," said one of my suppliers, "but it sure isn't looking better for me."

Which makes the undercurrent of optimism about taking a vacation soon so puzzling to me. That's right. One small businessperson after another I spoke with is either making plans to take a holiday around Labor Day, or is making plans for a trip before the end of the year. The change first hit me during a dinner conversation with my friend Chris. Earlier in the summer I clearly remember him saying economic conditions chained him to the office. A couple of weeks ago he had changed his tune, citing his kid's summer schedule for lack of travel plans. He and his wife were planning to rectify the situation by taking the family to Europe in early October.

Another contractor I know, who has not had a job in months, shelved his summer plans. Now he's booked a trip to Hawaii for Labor Day. "Things are getting better," he says, citing a recent upward trend in projects to quote. A self-employed dentist, who forsook a fancy summer vacation, is also planning to head to Hawaii in early January, after the year-end rush of patients looking to max out their insurance subsides. "I'll be burnt out if I don't get away by then," she says.

I am a classic pessimist. I see no real reason to assume that the economy will have done anything but bottom out by the end of the year. That doesn't mean recovery, certainly not when every analyst expects corporate profits to take another 20 percent hit as second-quarter tallies are announced. Almost every economist continues to warn that unemployment will continue to rise, with unexpected consequences for credit defaults of every sort, from homes to cars. Consumer spending shows no sign of independent life. Even my banker remains desperate. "If companies like yours don't start spending and taking loans," she pleaded, "we're not ever going to get out of this thing."

But maybe the new vacation optimists are right. Having survived the bottoming-out phase, perhaps they feel easier about taking a break, grabbing some time with family, and, well, celebrating. "We're still alive," said the owner of one rival company, "so why not take a moment to have fun?" Maybe I'm the one overlooking the brighter future, too quick to write off Bernanke's optimism, and give into my darker mood. "There are still so many things that can go wrong," my head keeps telling me. Maybe I'm wrong.

Or maybe I'm not. It's easy to book vacations one to three months out and cancel them if the economy, and by extension, an individual business, looks worse than expected. But entrepreneurs are, by their nature, risk takers, so I'm guessing the ones I know booking vacations now really believe that they are going to take them. Me, I hedge my bets. But as I like to say, I've successfully predicted 10 of the last two recessions. With a record like that, I probably should book the trip to Maui tomorrow.