Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Haggling, Middle Eastern-style, is a participant sport one either loves or hates. It might seem an absurd exercise to some; why not just use a price gun and be done with it?

But bargaining, like any negotiation, can incorporate creativity, skill and a level of psychological competition that's satisfying. And, importantly, it's a social ritual. The buyer and seller get to know one another far better than a cashier, mindlessly scanning UPCs in a checkout line, knows his customers.

Deep transactional relationships, as opposed to superficial exchanges, are at the core of travel retailing, and travel advisers require negotiating skills for two different roles, depending upon whether they're interacting with clients or suppliers.

I recently saw striking parallels between industry transactional relationships and a series of bargaining sessions, Middle Eastern-style, that ended with amazing results. These negotiations took place not in bazaars, medinas or souks, but in churches, mosques, synagogues and small museums.

To begin at the beginning: Robin Tauck, founder of Tauck Ritzau Innovative Philanthropy, included me in an invitation for a private tour to see "Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven," a temporary exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Her foundation had given money to support the exhibit, and the two curators who had assembled the collection, Barbara Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, led the tour. We saw stunning artifacts from the major religions and their various sects and offshoots: delicate glassware, intricate carvings, priceless jewelry and fragile, hand-lettered and illustrated books.

Side by side were pieces from religious and national groups that today regard each other with great suspicion, if not hatred. In one cabinet, I saw pieces from two countries that are technically at war with one another.

The treasures had all been lent by other museums, houses of worship and private collections, and at the tour's conclusion, I spoke with Boehm and Holcomb about their work. I wondered how they had persuaded people to hand over these fragile, sacred pieces to be transported thousands of miles and be displayed on equal footing with objects the lender might associate with heathens, heretics or infidels.

And should the piece come back diminished in any way, with a scratch, nick or a crack -- or worse, broken -- how could the lenders face their own constituents and explain why they risked so much for a four-month exhibit in a foreign land?

How did the curators manage this? What were the magic words?

They said three things were necessary to make the exhibit happen.

First, patience. They had worked on the project for years, taking many trips to the Middle East to meet with potential lenders, and they took time to build relationships.

Second, one needs the ability to drink tea. Lots and lots of tea.

And third, to combat the fears a lender might feel, they introduced a greater fear: the fear of being left out. The curators told potential lenders that the exhibit was going to define to the world which cultural groups were important in Jerusalem during that era. To not be included would signify that your group's contributions weren't essential to the city's history or development.

If that approach carried a veiled threat, it was often complemented with an incentive. They frequently told lenders that not only would the Met take extraordinary measures not to damage the property, but they would return it in better shape than when they had received it. They would expertly restore areas that were worn or damaged.

The word "curation" has been adopted widely in the travel industry, and I saw profound similarities between the interaction between the curators and lenders with what travel advisers do when speaking to clients and suppliers.

To clients, the adviser is like these curators, assembling beautiful experiences. But sometimes the value of a trip is not immediately evident. Clients might fear they're wasting irreplaceable time, money or both.

Taking a cue from the curators, perhaps it's useful not only to talk about the advantages of a trip but exactly what will be missed if they don't take it. Leisure time is scarce, and each trip represents a vanishing opportunity.

Perhaps some clients might miss the chance to spend time with soon-to-be-college-bound teens. Others might miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience that will change their lives. Or maybe the clients are in deep need of a re-energizing retreat during a low point in life.

Exactly what "fear" motivates a client will vary; part of an adviser's skill must be to uncover it without months and months of drinking tea together.

And there's a lesson in agent-supplier relations to be learned from the exhibit as well.

When speaking with suppliers, put yourself in the shoes of the lender, not the curator. You possess something of immeasurable value -- your clients -- whom you not only want returned unscratched, undented and uncracked, but whom you want restored. Transformed, if possible.

And let the supplier know that should, for example, your clients receive upgrades or some other form of special attention, that will go a long way to putting your mind at ease.

(The exhibit "Every People Under Heaven" will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through Jan. 8.)


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