Globetrotters of love

MBA-types in their twenties and thirties are carrying on relationships spanning not just countries, but continents, reports Fortune's Corey Hajim.

By Corey Hajim, Fortune reporter

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Last October, David Steel planned a romantic getaway with his girlfriend, Kristen Campolattaro. Steel, 38, a strategic planner at AIG and Campolattaro, 30, a marketing director for MasterCard Worldwide, had been logging in long hours at work and needed to reconnect. So they booked four days and nights at a quaint bed & breakfast... in Kyoto.

For Campolattaro, who flew 10 hours from her home base in Sydney, Australia, and Steel, who lives 10,000 miles away in New York, it was meeting in the middle. "We considered Shanghai," says Steel, "but Japan made the most sense simply because it is convenient to travel there from New York." And besides said Steel, "[Kyoto] is somewhat romantic."

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Andrew Lazzaro, based in New York, and Raya Papp, based in Singapore.
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David Steel is based in New York...
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While his girlfriend Kristen Campolattaro is based in Sydney, Australia.
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Elif Bilgi lives in Istanbul...
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While her husband, Paolo Zapparoli, lives in Milan.

Romantic? Really?

Sure, especially when you consider some of the hot spots Andrew Lazzaro, 35 and Raya Papp, 32, chose to meet when their relationship extended across 12 times zones for 18 months. One of their favorites was the United Airline's San Francisco red carpet club, where they could meet, shower and spend a few hours canoodling over tomato juice (for him), club soda (for her) and celery sticks while watching the planes come and go. Their travel itineraries also included shared flights from Las Vegas to New York, a conference in Orlando and two days in Hawaii, all the while racking up millions of airline and Hilton points. "We have a lot of conversations about point accumulation and maximizing our value," says Lazarro.

Feuding families kept Romeo and Juliet apart and war got in the way of romance for Odysseus and Penelope, but for Lazzaro and Papp, it is work. Two years ago, Papp was offered a job in Singapore with Thomson Scientific to explore expansion opportunities across the Asian Pacific region, while Lazzaro, who had already lived abroad for seven years, wanted to stay in New York and build his consulting business, Bowsprit.

They admit that their arrangement was not ideal, but both felt that "strategically" the time apart made sense. "It really wasn't the right move for him in his career," says Papp, "but I very much thought it was the right move for mine."

Call it the globalization of romance - MBA-types in their twenties and thirties carrying on relationships spanning not just countries, but continents, driven by the desire to work internationally, enabled by 24-hour technology devices. It's difficult to measure the number of these super long distance relationships, or Super LDRs, but ask most Columbia, Harvard or Wharton business school grads and they will tell you it's not that unusual.

The Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships, run by Stanford-trained psychologist Dr. Greg Guldner, has estimated that more than three-and-a-half million married couples were living apart in 2005 for reasons other than marital discord and of that number 28 percent had 1,000 to 10,000 miles between them. And that doesn't include the international daters.

Ambition and love

The move overseas by ambitious MBAs is not surprising. More and more companies look beyond country borders for new markets, new resources and new talent. And with almost every business being touched by emerging markets, global experience is climbing up the priority list for next-generation CEOs. "The vast majority of our key selection criteria for CEOs," says Jim Citrin, senior director of executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, "have called for specific experience living and working internationally or at a minimum comfort and effectiveness in among different cultures and in a global environment." So, while the timing might not be convenient, couples like these are willing to make the sacrifice.

For Lazzaro and Papp, Steel and Campolattaro, the separation is temporary, for others it has become a way of life. Paolo Zapparoli, 41, who works in private equity, and Elif Bilgi, 39, an investment banker, met as classmates at Harvard Business School in 1991. Two years later, they graduated, got married and moved to New York. But in 1997, Zapparoli was offered a job in Turkey, so the couple separated for almost two years. Bilgi then followed, setting up an investment bank in Istanbul. They spent a few years together in Turkey before Zapparoli switched jobs and was called back to New York. Another year and a half passed before Zapparoli moved to Milan, 1,000 miles from his family. "Now that we are both in Europe, it is much more manageable, it is not so insane," says Bilgi, whose son Leonardo had frequent flyer gold status by age three.

"I was brought up thinking that there was no difference between a man and a woman as far as professional life was concerned and I am lucky that Paolo agrees," says Bilgi. Most women in super LDRs are not making decisions solely based on their significant others' priorities, an attitude that has gained momentum as more women fill business school seats and corner offices. The other half of that attitude shift has been made by 21st century boyfriends and husbands, who are finding the independence attractive. "I definitely feel like I've learned that she is really cool," says Will Hunter of his girlfriend who was transferred to London for six months under short notice. "I feel more confident in dating her knowing how she handles a stressful situation."

Indeed, for the uber ambitious, it can seem like the best of both worlds - you're not alone because you have access to someone by phone, e-mail and on special occasions, but during the week, your schedule is all your own. You can stay at work as late as you want, go to the gym, and meet friends for drinks, without the distraction of a relationship to consider. It can be, in a word, efficient. Everyday annoyances are erased. "I don't have to wait for her to finish blow drying her hair before I can leave the apartment," said one super-LDR boyfriend. "Your schedules during the week could be quite incompatible and it didn't matter," says another.

And then there is the sex. "There is champagne, candlelight dinners, there's baths with oils and rose petals on the bed," says Dr. Dale Atkins, Ph.D, a psychologist and relationship expert. Super-LDR couples say that the opportunity to meet up in romantic spots (not just airport lounges) around the world for short visits means the spark of a new relationship never fades.

"Everything is romantic," says Jenny Botsis, an actress in Greece whose boyfriend of two years, Alex Poulias, runs a retail business and telecom service in Guatemala. "Even when we wake up and say good morning to each other, it is very romantic and very special. Of course I hope someday he will be back, but the first thing I want is for the relationship to be as good as it is now. I found someone I am happy with and I am willing to pay the price."

That price is not something everyone understands. "My family thought I was crazy," says Papp. "A lot of people were thinking that there was actually something wrong with our marriage," says Bilgi. "Often there is a stigma," says Dr. Atkins. "There is a sense that people should be together to nurture their relationship and that there is only one way to have a relationship."

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