From the July 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

Purchasing two portable computers has made all the difference for Ken Levitt, owner of Mexican Accent Inc. in New Berlin, Wisconsin. A manufacturer of tortillas and tortilla chips, the 47-year-old entrepreneur was looking for a way to help him compete with the big guys. The answer: Giving multimedia presentations on the road via laptop computer. Levitt estimates his closing sales have tripled since acquiring portable computers more than a year ago. "They've been a very powerful sales tool for us," he says.

As more small-business owners realize how portable computing can improve sales, boost customer service and maximize their productivity on the road, the real question is how to get started?

"You need to begin with a vision for how the business is going to operate," advises Sharon Marsh Roberts, president of computer consulting company Roberts Financial Systems Inc. in Linden, New Jersey, and vice president of the International Computer Consultants Association.

Roberts recommends you begin by determining who's going to be using the laptop computers, what they'll be doing and their specific needs. Ask employees about the computer functions they deem necessary, and then have a small group of typical users test the models in the field. Once you've settled on the kind of laptop computers required, attempt to standardize them. You don't want members of your sales force carrying 10 different models. "Standardization makes the business function better," says Roberts.

Once employees hit the road in full force, expect a certain number of problems with the machines-particularly within the first few months. Have a standard policy in place, says Roberts, that informs employees how to deal with computer problems and failures. Finally, it's a good idea to create a security policy outlining company strategy for keeping computer files and hardware safe in airports, hotels and typical travel situations.

Southern Comfort

Do you sometimes wake up in your hotel room and look around, only to have difficulty recalling what city you're in this week? You won't if you're staying at the Talbot Heirs Guesthouse in Memphis, Tennessee, says 34-year-old entrepreneur Jamie Baker. She and her husband, Phil, also 34, own one of a growing number of "urban inns" that cater to business travelers seeking a more memorable experience than hotel chains offer.

Formerly an apartment building the Bakers purchased in July 1995, the Talbot Heirs Guesthouse contains nine guest suites decorated in different themes. For example, one room incorporates a black-and-white retro motif with a black leather sofa and an iron bed fashioned from an old fence. Another is outfitted southern style with a Tennessee marble floor, plantation shutters and a classic fainting couch. All the guest suites have fully equipped kitchens; suites cost from $150 to $250 per night.

"We wanted a place that felt like the guest room of someone's house," explains Jamie, "wedded with the privacy and security of a hotel."

For travelers who need to get down to business, there are two phone lines in every room; fax machines, treadmills and stair-climbing machines are also available upon request. In addition, the hotel has two conference rooms for holding meetings, luncheons or dinner receptions.

As if that's not enough, the Bakers recently acquired a property two doors down they've dubbed "Suite 10." It's a 2,000-square-foot penthouse that's open for business with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, treadmill, fax machine, full kitchen, living room and dining room for eight. How's that for traveling in style?

Road Notes

American, United and Delta airlines are working on plans to install seat-back electric outlets for laptops, possibly as soon as this fall.

In addition to its pre-flight grooming salon and music listening room, spunky Virgin Atlantic has just installed a putting green in the Virgin Clubhouse at London's Heathrow Airport.

Feel ill during a trip? If you're headed to or through Chicago, visit the full-service medical clinic on the upper level of Terminal Two at O'Hare International Airport. Open from 6 a.m. until midnight, it's staffed by doctors and nurses from the University of Illinois.

Earn 500 extra Mileage Plus miles through December 31 when you make your United reservations online using the United Connection page on CompuServe (or directly using software from United). The software costs $24.95 and includes $25 worth of coupons for use on United flights. To order the software, call (800) 482-2696.

Latest frequent-flier tie-in: Major airlines have launched dining programs that give you miles for each dollar spent at thousands of restaurants worldwide. United and Continental programs offer 10 miles per dollar; American and Alaska Airlines, three; Northwest, two.

When travelers eat in, what do they choose? At the Novotel in New York City, Evian water is the most popular minibar item; beer is the alcoholic beverage of choice. And when calling room service, men prefer hamburgers; women, club sandwiches.

Food For Thought

Airport food service has come a long way now that some of the country's top fast-food franchises are serving up fare the way travelers like it. Here's what's cooking at some of the nation's biggest airports:

Hartsfield Atlanta International: Wendy's, Chili's, Houlihan's, Burger King, TCBY, Au Bon Pain, Chick-fil-A, Domino's, TGI Friday's, Miami Subs

Boston-Logan International: Legal Seafood, TCBY, Dunkin' Donuts, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Au Bon Pain, Cheers Bar, Samuel Adams Pub

Chicago-O'Hare International: Gold Coast Dogs, McDonald's, Pizzeria Uno, Starbucks, Peggy Sue's Diner

Dallas/Ft. Worth International: Freshens Yogurt, Auntie Anne's, Pizza Hut, Mr. Gatti's Pizza

Los Angeles International: McDonald's, Wolfgang Puck's, Creative Croissants

Newark International: Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Mrs. Fields, Au Bon Pain, McDonald's, Sbarro, Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs

Washington-National: Cinnabon, Vie de France, Jerry's Subs and Pizza, Frank & Stein, McDonald's.

Going, Going, Gone

Have more frequent flier miles than you know what to do with? Consider putting your hard-earned mileage to good use at an auction.

Most major air carriers hold auctions where their frequent flier members can use their miles to bid on a variety of trips and prizes. For instance, in addition to pre-arranged trips to Hawaii or Europe, airlines auction off such noteworthy prizes as tickets to the Super Bowl, the Olympics, even the Academy Awards.

For business travelers, an auction can be an easy way to use miles that are about to expire or that they don't have the time-or inclination-to use on a free ticket. "Many auctions are designed to give an alternative to people whose miles really aren't going anywhere," explains Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer magazine.

How does it work? Some airlines have 800 numbers you can call to find out the highest bid and then offer yours via telephone. Others hold "blind" auctions in which members simply call or write in their bids without knowing what other members are offering. Call your frequent flier program for details.

The dates for prizes and trips are often non-negotiable, says Petersen. And since you may also have to use your award within a set amount of months, be sure your calendar is clear during the required time period.

Card Games

With so many airline-mileage credit cards available, how do cards for the biggest U.S. carriers rate?

Airline/Bank Rate Fee Miles*

Alaska Airlines/Seafirst MasterCard-Visa 17.9% $45 20,000

America West Flight Fund/Bank of America Visa 18.15% $45 20,000

American AAdvantage/Citibank MasterCard-Visa 17.6% $50 25,000

Continental OnePass/Marine Midland MasterCard-Visa 19.95% $55 25,000

Northwest/First Bank WorldPerks Visa 18% $55 20,000

United Mileage Plus/First Card Visa 9.9%** $60 25,000

USAir Frequent Flier/NationsBank Advantage Card Visa 17.94% $35 25,000

Tray Magnifique

Eating lunch in the car isn't getting any easier for today's road warriors. It's no picnic trying to enjoy a quick bite to eat without spilling ketchup on your best suit.

Fortunately, there's a solution: Dubbed the Twist-Away Tray, this affordable product takes the mess out of eating in your car. Created by Pacific Sportswear Co. Inc. in San Diego, the reusable tray hangs around your neck and pops open to cover your chest and lap from embarrassing spills. It's made from a spill-resistant material that easily wipes clean; when you're done, just fold it back into its pouch and put it in the glove box.

If you put in a lot of miles on the road, the Twist-Away Tray may help keep your stress level down-not to mention your dry-cleaning bills. Cost: $4.95