I just spent three days out of the office. As expected, I missed numerous voicemail messages and came back to a plethora of e-mails. With the Internet and satellite communications, hotels and airplanes allow you to carry your virtual office along with you as easily as your garment bag. I did check in from time to time, and honestly forgot my cellular telephone.

Cutting the apron strings was not as painful as I imagined. To my surprise, I found something I hadn't realized I missed so much: face-to-face conversation with people in our industry.As the host of last week's Breakbulk Conference, I shared the podium with industry leaders from ports, carriers, shippers, their associations and government agencies. I was excited to see and hear the energy and enthusiasm of all the speakers.Unfortunately, with big audiences, people aren't prone to shine the spotlight on themselves by asking post-speech questions. Nevertheless, at the end of every panel discussion, a number of attendees sought out the speakers for one-on-one time. I experienced the same inquisitive exchange of ideas at the exhibit booths and evening parties.

To single out one conversation among the many interesting people I chatted with is unfair, but my discussion with Phil Foster, manager of logistics & expediting for Enron Engineering and Construction is a good example of networking in action. Phil said he came to the breakbulk show to get updated on the markets for project cargo and the issues facing heavy-lift transporters. He took the occasion to meet a few new prospective project cargo carriers and to hear the panel discussion remarks of his power plant building competitors. He may have uncovered a new business opportunity for Enron in the process: trading excess transportation capacity.

''Enron has an entrepreneurial spirit,'' Phil said. ''We still develop, build and operate large energy facilities worldwide. Moreover, we are setting up those assets to network with the products they produce and the services they require. We might be able to offer an electronic trading mechanism for excess rail, truck and even shipping capacity.''

In November 1999, Enron launched Enron Online, a principal-based electronic platform for trading in commodities such as natural gas, electricity, coal and metals. Derivative trading is also conducted in weather futures, clean air credits and broadband communications. In the first seven months of this year, 178,000 transactions with products and services worth $84 billion have been conducted on Enron Online.

Would an electronic trading desk work for shipping? ''Shipping is a critical component of the global power project industry,'' Phil said. ''In my opinion, the timely exchange of shipping information through the Internet would create leverage. Today we can buy $45 million of pipe on the web that requires product delivery of exacting dimensions and piece counts. ''The same could be true for project freight, and maybe other cargo shipments, too. It's just an idea, but Enron encourages us to better understand and participate with our business partners and vendors as they grow and change.'' I am confident that Phil benefited from attending the conference and the contacts he made. I plan on inviting him to be a speaker next year to let us all know where Enron is headed.

Similarly, the people that attended the Port Elizabeth groundbreaking ceremony for Maersk Sealand's expanded container terminal (see story, page 24) benefited from the experience. Like most shipping industry dinners, the setting, food and entertainment were first class. But I am really referring to the interaction between Maersk Sealand and its business partners. With the terminal expansion and dredging issues resolved, Tommy Thomsen, president and chief executive of Maersk Inc. and Tony Scioscia, president of Maersk Container Service Corp., were sincere in their remarks that their company is again focused on growing with its customers. ''It took a while to get here,'' Tommy said. ''We are committed to investing in the future. We are spending over $1 billion each year on equipment, ships and terminals.'' More than one shipper I spoke with at the ceremony expressed a high level of satisfaction with Maersk Sealand and the way they handled the dual challenges of their merger and the New York harbor issues.Now back in my office, the routine resumes and the mountain of emails are slowly getting answered. I admit I'm already planning my next working escape back into the field.