Behind the scenes ...

There were hands-on computer classes and seminars on Internet strategies for travel agencies. There were even such heavyweight companies as Sony demonstrating electronic products on the trade show floor.

Indeed, if you attended the ASTA World Travel Congress in Las Vegas, you could not help noticing that technology was here, there and everywhere.

So much so, that many agents probably came away thinking that it should have been called the World Travel Technology Congress.

Add to that the fact that the Las Vegas congress may go down in the books as one of the most successful domestic ASTA conventions in years, and it is easy to see why Cheryl Hudak couldn't be happier.

Hudak was chairman of the congress and helped mold its format. Appointed in April 1999, she started out determined to bolster the convention's technology content.

Cheryl Hudak; who was chairman of this year's ASTA congress in Las Vegas, is president of its mid-America chapter. "I am big on education," said Hudak, who runs Boardman, Ohio-based Travel Dimensions and serves as president of ASTA's mid-America chapter.

"We needed to stress the educational part of ASTA. We needed to move forward with technology."

Hudak and her committees, which included agents and suppliers and ASTA staff, spent 18 months crafting the convention around technology themes.

On top of that, Hudak took at least three trips to Las Vegas and worked closely with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Hudak also helped determine the various speakers at the convention and influenced certain changes, such as starting it off with an entertainment show.

"The awards are very important, but this was Vegas, and we wanted to start off with a bang," she said.

And instead of pouring the awards out all at once, they were presented over the course of three days.

Ultimately, Hudak said, the format changes "had people excited and looking forward to the entire week."

Hudak said being chairman was enjoyable but also a lot of hard work.

"You get a lot of input from a lot of people; you have to be very open-minded," she said.

"But if there is something you strongly believe in or something you really think you need to change, you have to stand your ground."

Looking back at Las Vegas, Hudak said she believes all of the hours of work, the phone calls, the inspection trips and the e-mails were worth it.

"We had one of the largest trade shows ever, with 900 booths," Hudak said.

"We had the largest technology pavilion ASTA has ever had.

"Overall, I think we did a good job of it."

But Hudak's work is not over yet. She's on the committee for the next ASTA congress in Seville, Spain.

-- Michael Milligan

... and on the air

Between running Travel Dimensions and serving as president of ASTA's mid-America chapter, Cheryl Hudak, with her staff of seven full-time agents (she also employs 12 outside sales representatives) takes time each week to share their travel insights with thousands of radio listeners.

Each Wednesday at 6:06 p.m., Hudak and her staff host a half-hour call-in travel show on WNIL, an AM-FM radio station that reaches Ohio listeners in the Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown areas.

For the past eight years, Hudak and her agents have been fielding calls from listeners and offering advice on all sorts of travel questions.

They also share their years of travel wisdom and their ongoing, first-hand experiences.

"If any of my agents have come back from a fam or from a vacation, they go on the radio show and talk about it," Hudak said.

And in a true show-must-go-on spirit, Hudak participates in the call-in even when she isn't in town. "I've called in from Vegas," she said. "Or if I am sitting in an airport, I do it from there. The listeners don't always realize I am on the phone."

At other times, Hudak will clue listeners in, giving them a first-hand account of an attraction she is visiting.

In June, for example, Hudak and her agency manager were at a conference in Orlando.

"We went to Animal Kingdom, and we called in from there," describing the park and its offerings, Hudak said.

The radio show also enables Hudak and her agents to carry on the message that travel agents are more than order-takers or airline-ticket sellers.

Week after week, they make sure that's one message that goes out loud and clear.

Mama MIA, LAX on geo?

A true story: A friend of mine was speaking to a young woman at a party. She had just returned from a vacation on Aruba. "Where exactly is Aruba?" my friend asked. Her reply: "How should I know? I flew there."

This response reflects the woeful level of geographic knowledge among our clients.

But it also conveys something more subtle: Unlike driving or going by rail, air travel disconnects us from geography.

Marc Mancini.This applies to agents, too. Air itineraries have become not much more than airport codes on a computer screen. We punch in the departure and destination cities and let the computer figure it out.

LAX-ORD-MIA, LAX-HOU-MIA or LAX-CVG-MIA. What's the difference? Just the fares and the airlines that fly each route.

But there are other, big differences about the examples above, and they have to do with geography. So here are a few pointers that will help you select the best geographic itinerary for your client, especially when connector cities are involved.

  • The shortest distance east-west (or west-east) on a map is often not a straight line but one that curves toward the poles. Los Angeles-Chicago-Miami isn't as bad as you might think.
  • Because Earth is a sphere, what appears as a curved route on a map may actually represent the shortest distance. This is especially true with long distances.

  • Climate at the connector city is a vital factor. Dallas/Fort Worth is great for connections in the winter, but how about in the summer?
  • Thunderstorms are common in July and August and might disrupt your client's trip.

    Conversely, the chance of a snowstorm at Minneapolis/St. Paul in January could make a more southernly connector city preferable.

  • How and where an airport is situated is critical. Boston's Logan is a mess to get in and out of, but Providence, R.I.'s Green Airport is wonderfully located and represents an excellent alternative.
  • Check where your client will go after leaving the airport; the alternative airport might be the best.

    So next time you check flights, try to visualize those itineraries and what they represent in the real world. The result may lead you to the best possible recommendation.

    Marc Mancini is a professor of travel at West Los Angeles College.

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