Singing the stress away

etween the airlines cutting commissions and putting the kibosh on offshore ticketing schemes, it seems as though it's getting tougher to earn a living as a travel agent. No wonder many agents these days are singing the blues.

Except for maybe Mark Murie. He prefers singing to composer Maurice Durufle's "Requiem," and not because he's blue.

"It is fun. It is really enjoyable to me," said Murie, who believes having fun is just as important, and actually maybe even more important, than work.

But make no mistake about it, Murie is constantly working.

Mark Murie.He owns Country Travel in Bismarck, N.D., and recently acquired another agency, Preferred Travel in Minot, a city just a couple of hours' drive away. Murie also markets customized tours to the inbound market.

And if that's not enough to keep him busy, he serves as ASTA chapter president for the Upper Midwest, which encompasses North Dakota and Minnesota.

Like many agents, Murie believes it's tougher to be a travel agent these days.

"Every time we turn around, we get another kick in the head," Murie said. "Frankly, while there are a lot of positives in the travel industry, there have been a lot of negatives, too. So you need something else that is positive in your life."

And that's why Murie, a trained tenor, sings. Along with gardening and early-morning exercise, singing is part of Murie's unofficial stress-management program. So, he seems to sing just about every chance he gets.

He sings and sometimes conducts his church choir. He also belongs to a singing group that performs at weddings and other special events, and he participates in a second choir called Masterworks, which brings us back to Durufle's "Requiem."

In several weeks, Masterworks will stage a public performance of the "Requiem," which Murie said is a complicated work.

The part Murie is learning requires singing 30 minutes of verse in Latin. "This is not something you talk in everyday," Murie said. "It is extremely challenging music."

That's why Murie is constantly practicing it, including listening to a music CD of "Requiem" while commuting from his home to his two agencies. It isn't easy, but that's what Murie loves about it.

"I've been involved in music all of my life," said Murie, who also plays piano. "It is a challenge, but it is something you can master. You are the one in control. You are the one learning it. You can take all the good feelings from having accomplished it."

Not so in the travel industry. "In the industry, you can do everything you want to do things right, but there are so many things that affect your performance, like if the flight is canceled or the hotel has a problem," he said.

But "singing and exercising are in your control. No one else can screw it up." And on top of all that, Murie said, it is a break from the daily grind of running an agency.

"Life shouldn't be all serious, and I am way more a cutup than serious," Murie said. "In my next life, I'm going to be a band director."

-- Michael Milligan

A primer on getting a life

ey, you think you're stressed? Try working as a reporter on a weekly travel newspaper. It's all deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. There's always someone to interview or a press conference to cover. Not to mention the editors breathing down your neck, wanting to know "when are you going to finish that Agent Life piece?"

So what's the point of this thinly disguised rant masquerading as the lead to this story? Well, the point is this: We are all stressed out.

But, according to Allen Elkin, more of us could benefit from following Mark Murie's example.

And Elkin should know. Aside from having a Ph.D. in psychology, he has written the book on controlling stress. Actually a couple of books, including the now classic "Stress Management for Dummies."

"There really is more pressure these days," said Elkin, who founded the Stress Management and Counseling Center in New York 20 years ago. "The economics are dicey. People are worried about how they will retire, whether they will be laid off and the [faster] pace of life."

But when it comes to managing or reducing stress, Elkin said, "There is no magic bullet."

"You have to put together a [stress management] package that includes everything," he said, "from learning how to relax your body and quiet your mind to getting a life."

To start, Elkin said, "Grab a piece of paper and put together a list of things you find enjoyable and satisfying."

Too stressed to do that? OK, then check out Elkin's list:

• Hobbies, activities, exercise. For instance, play more of your favorite sport. Or simply go walking.

• Make time for the little things. "Get up a little earlier in the morning, have a coffee and read a newspaper. At lunch, take a walk around the block," Elkin said.

• Try aromatherapy. Candles and scented oils are fine, but Elkin also suggested, "strange as it sounds," tossing "a little of your favorite perfume or cologne in your wastebasket" near your desk.

• Check your office ergonomics. "You want to make sure you have the right chair. It is very important that you are not straining your hands when you are using a keyboard."

•Eat well. "Your body, in order to help cope with stress, has to be taken care of," Elkin said.

• Get sleep. "Seventy-million Americans don't get enough sleep. Getting sleep is probably one of the most important things you can do for yourself," Elkin said.

• Spend time with friends and family.

• Get organized. "If you look at your desk and you can't find that tuna sandwich you had a month ago, you are in real trouble," Elkin said. "When you are organized, it helps reduce stress."

Marc My Words

Back On Track

ou want to get into the travel business? You must be nuts!

OK, I admit it. On occasion I've had that thought. You've probably had that thought, too. And almost surely, you've heard someone else hand out that warning. There's a crisis of faith in our industry, and it's troubling.

Marc Mancini.Yet no matter what happens, one thing is sure: People always will want to travel. And they'll need caring, enthusiastic people to help them do it -- people like us.

There may be no better time than now to rededicate ourselves to our careers, our customers and our industry. How to do it?

• Get in touch with your "inner travel-child." Remember how excited you were when you landed your first travel-related job? For me, it was the thrill of being a tour manager for the first time, taking a group to the New York World's Fair for a day, at 17 years old, no less. I often replay that memory, and almost always it inspires me. And every now and then I call or visit the person who gave me that job, Jim Penler, just to acknowledge that wonderfully reckless faith he placed in me.

• Admit the reason you got into this industry: To travel more and better and to help others do the same. Had I not stumbled into travel, I'd probably still be living in Fall River, Mass., thinking that a trip to Boston was exotic. Instead, I've visited the pyramids, sailed Venice's canals, elevatored up the Eiffel Tower and ambled through the ruins of Rome. Had I not gone into our business, I might still have "done" all these things anyway, but at once, in Las Vegas.

• Find a role model. Right now I've got two: Justus Ghormley, an Iatan geo-trainer who so loves destinations that he sometimes delivers his seminars in a pith helmet, and Kay Boles, a meeting planner in West Los Angeles College's travel department, who's convinced her class that her career should be theirs. It's hard to be jaded around people like that.

• Offer to speak to students at a local travel school. You'll get as much out of it as they will. You also may be surprised how many career-changers are in the room, people who say, in effect, "I've made money; now, I want to nourish my soul." We can learn from that attitude.

Sometimes we make money, sometimes we don't, but always we should remind ourselves of the experiences we've had because of travel, and of the wondrous memories that almost surely are to come.

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

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