The systematic specialist

ne sip of an authentic cappuccino in a sunny Italian piazza and a lot of travelers -- both inside and outside the travel industry -- fall in love with Italy. But not many devote months to covering the back roads of every region of the country, as Roxana Lewis has done.

The co-owner of Chartwell Travel in Los Angeles, Lewis calls her endeavor "investing in my passion." It is a passion that has not abated in her more than 10 years of travel to Italy.

"It's the ancient history, the culture, the style, the food, the people," Lewis said when asked what she likes about the country.

It started with an idea about becoming a specialist in one place.

Lewis, who described herself as being "slightly left-brained" -- meaning logical and methodical -- took a systematic approach to visiting Italy.

"The whole idea was to become a geographic specialist, and I knew I couldn't do that from one fam trip," she said. She decided on a multiyear project and began exploring two of Italy's 20 regions each year on two separate trips.

Although Italy is her specialty, it's not Roxana Lewis' only niche. She also organizes Sierra Club tours. She read up on the region before the trip but made no arrangements other than having a rough idea of what she wanted to see.

"I booked my airline ticket and a rental car at the airport and took off from there," without even a hotel booking, Lewis said. She started at the tip of the boot of Italy and slowly made her way north, her trips taking her to the least-visited parts of the country. She didn't hit Rome until seven years into the project.

Lewis collected maps, guide books and hotel brochures. Meanwhile, her husband, Howard Lewis, co-owner of the agency, undertook a similar project -- on France. He visited one region at a time, with the exception of Paris, where he spent three vacations.

The couple's travels have paid off for their agency.

There's no hesitancy when Lewis tells her clients she knows Italy. She knows the pathways between the smallest of Tuscan hill towns and farms specializing in agri-turismo -- the movement in Italy to introduce foreigners and often native-born Italians to the wonders of home-cooked meals with farm-raised products.

Lewis has parlayed her expertise into group tours for the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club. An active hiker, mountain climber and marathon runner, she has much in common with the energetic types who travel with the club. Her twice-yearly group trips to Italy are often scheduled in conjunction with a major marathon.

However, most of her Italy business is FIT, generated through the Sierra Club, her affiliations with a half-dozen philanthropic and community associations, and through a class she teaches at a local adult school. The subject is Driving in Italy.

The class appeals to do-it-yourself travelers, typically followers of guidebook author Rick Steves. Lewis does her best to show her students that "although driving is not the easiest thing to do in Italy, you need to do it to really explore Italy."

Many of the students are transformed from do-it-yourself planners to agency clients at the end of the class.

Chartwell Travel has a $100 per person minimum fee for FITs; the hourly charge is $57. Sometimes the FITs include luxury hotels that pay commission, but more often they don't. "I don't count on commissions from European hotels," she said.

Italy is not Lewis' only niche. She also organizes monthly Sierra Club tours for the local chapter, combining a rail trip on Amtrak, an overnight stay and hiking. She also started offering walking tours to other destinations, such as Japan and the U.K.

But Italy remains her first love, and she has several trips on the books, including a walking tour of the Amalfi coast in conjunction with the 2004 Rome marathon.

-- Laura Del Rosso

25 years and counting

rom the windows of her travel agency, Roxana Lewis can watch airplanes take off and land on the southern runway of Los Angeles Airport. She's been watching the movement of the planes while running her agency for the last 25 years.

The view isn't as enjoyable as it used to be -- a constant reminder, perhaps, of the zero commission that airlines are paying now -- and Lewis, like most agents, has tried to trim the amount of revenue her small agency derives from airline ticket sales.

This was the toughest year in the history of Chartwell Travel, so difficult that Lewis' plans to celebrate the agency's 25th year faded as she struggled to keep the $1.2 million operation afloat.

The slumping economy, decline in international travel (Chartwell's specialty is Europe) and commission cuts took their toll. The only reminders are the 25th anniversary stickers attached to documents and mailings.

Roxana Lewis.Lewis and her husband, Howard, opened Chartwell with Roxana Lewis' sister, Danielle Tsukamoto, a long-time travel agent who left the field several years ago to run a sushi restaurant. But Roxana Lewis is a self-described industry old-timer who plans to stick with the business, despite her current frustrations.

"It's just become so much tougher to make a nickel," she said. "But I think there's a whole lot of potential for good, creative travel professionals out there."

She is a Life Member of the Institute of Certified Travel Agents and long active in ICTA and other industry groups. She still gets together regularly with other travel agents who completed their Certified Travel Counselor certificates in ICTA's study-group program in the 1970s.

And, although she said she questions whether she should still be operating an ARC-accredited travel agency from rented office space, as opposed to joining the burgeoning trend of non-ARC home-office agencies, she vowed she will "die at a travel agency desk."

"It might not be one that I own," she said, "and it may be one [belonging to another agency] that I align myself with, but that's what I'll be doing." -- L.D.R.

The TSA provides security with a smile

never thought I'd ever say this, but here goes: Sometimes, the government can do it better.

The Transportation Security Agency (TSA), for the most part, is doing a good job. Its representatives are thorough, alert, meticulous and really trying to protect our country. The contrast to what used to go on at airports is striking.

Their service skills also are proficient.

Marc Mancini.On a recent flight out of San Jose (Calif.) Airport, I approached several off-duty TSA staff members and confirmed what I had suspected: The TSA gives its employees service training. It communicates the importance of being nice to people in a stressful environment.

And -- dare I say it? -- all of us, in every sector of the travel industry, could learn from the simple but effective behaviors the TSA people are applying.

First, they actually smile.

Oh, there are some grim faces among them (more about that later), but generally they keep things pleasant, even as they ask you to extend your arms and take off your shoes (thankfully, not at the same time).

I've seen them warmly welcome people as they exit the plane into the terminal, assist people with heavy luggage and thank people by name.

They graciously answer questions about everything from where the rest rooms are to where you can find the nearest Cinnabon.

I do have one fear: that this service spirit will slowly evaporate, as the joy of a new, important career erodes into an "it's just a job" mentality.

More disturbing: The policing function they serve eventually may overwhelm everything else.

I received a taste of that at San Jose. Three of the off-duty TSA agents were very gracious to me but wanted to know more about the article I was writing. That was prudent and right.

A fourth, though, was almost belligerent, challenging me to prove who I was.

I showed him an article, with my face and name right on the page. He still wasn't happy.

His peers clearly were uncomfortable with his military-like behavior.

Let's hope his attitude doesn't move to the forefront of the TSA experience.

If it does, one more unpleasant thing will arise to dampen our clients' desire for travel.

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

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