'My heart is with the deaf'

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Rod SmithRod Smith has long and deep connections to the travel business -- and to a subset of travelers, the deaf. Three years ago, he merged those two passions to create Harvesttime Deaf Travel in Fridley, Minn., outside of Minneapolis.

His travel connections began in childhood when his mother worked for Eastern Airlines in Miami. Both Smith's parents were deaf, as were an aunt and uncle. Smith himself is not.

Smith migrated straight to the travel business, first by taking a college course called Travel Agency Procedures. In the early 1970s he took his first job with a Miami agency as manager of transportation for a singing group.

Soon, his career path became entwined with his interest in the needs of the deaf.

He said deaf parents in the 1950s were told not to teach hearing children how to use sign language; this was meant to ensure the kids' full participation in the world of the hearing. As a result, as a child, Smith learned only the signs for the 26 letters.

While working at a travel agency in Vancouver, he was asked to coach a soccer team of deaf players. That was how, at age 22, he finally learned full-blown sign language.

He took a job then with Republic Airlines in Washington, where he also found time to coach deaf students at Gallaudet University. He soon expanded his role at Gallaudet, leaving Republic to work for a travel agency on the Gallaudet campus that served students' travel needs and booked some of the university's business travel, as well.

In 1995, Smith and his wife adopted two deaf Russian boys, and Smith left travel for about a decade to teach full time at North Central University in Minneapolis in its deaf studies program.

"But when you work in travel, it's in your blood," he said.

In the past, Smith said, he had gone to deaf clients' homes to book their travel, because the existing telephone systems were so unsatisfactory. However, when videophones came out in 2004, he saw the opportunity to operate a travel business focused entirely on the deaf traveler. He established Harvesttime in 2006.

To date, he has not had enough business to sustain a full-time commitment, so he continues to teach part time at North Central University. He also works part time for Sun Country Airlines and, on weekends, at a church for the deaf.

Smith's travel business is about 70% leisure, including cruises, tour packages and point-to-point air, and 30% corporate, meaning mission trips undertaken by churches that serve the deaf. Harvesttime is hosted by Advent Travel in Minneapolis, a Travel Leaders franchisee.

The deaf need extra assistance in advance of travel, Smith said. With the Web, he said, it is somewhat easier for them to make bookings, but, he added, that doesn't mean they pick up the nuances of the air ticket rules -- or, these days, baggage fees.

His clients will shop the Web but call him anyway, he said.

Some things are still difficult for him to control for his clients. He advises the carrier on each booking that he has booked a deaf passenger. But, he said, the airlines are not really equipped to deal with deaf passengers, and there have been "horror stories" of deaf passengers boarding the wrong planes because they did not realize their departure gate had changed.

For cruises, he said, there are two lines, Royal Caribbean and Holland America, that with sufficient warning will provide interpreters for the cruise who are fluent in sign language, at no extra cost.

Smith said he will sell his deaf customers anything they need, including intercity bus tickets, with a service fee for himself, if that best fits their needs and budgets.

Many longtime deaf don't have much money for travel and may be living on Supplemental Security Income and/or Social Security Disability Income, Smith said. But because that income is steady, the recession has not much affected Harvesttime, he said.

Looking ahead, though, he figures it's about time to grow the business.

He said one untapped source is the National Association of the Deaf. In addition, to get beyond the relatively small potential market among those who have been deaf from birth and generally have small incomes, he wants to attract those who have become deaf later in life. For this, he sees a source in the Association of Late-Deafened Adults.

To expand his appeal to these new prospects, Smith also wants to put together special packages for the deaf and arrange more group cruises for this clientele.

Smith will have his own page at the Advent Travel site as soon as he provides the materials. He also is intrigued by a new technology, introduced in October, that would enable him to send his prospects email with attached video showing him describing products in sign language.

Smith said that when he's contacted by nondeaf travelers, he generally refers them to his host agency.

"My heart is with the deaf," he said.

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