The morning after last Monday's stock market tumble, I was pedaling fast, going nowhere, on a stationary bicycle in a gym. I was trying to read a book while the women on either side of me carried on a conversation.
It soon became clear that both women had husbands who worked on Wall Street. "John has been on the phone since Sunday, trying to calm his clients," Ms. Left-of-me said. "He doesn't know what to tell them. He doesn't know what to do."
"Chris, too," Ms. Right-of-me replied. "He doesn't know what to say either. One of his institutional investors' portfolios has dropped a third of its value. Tens of millions of dollars gone, boom! Just like that. And he doesn't know what to tell them. So he's just saying, 'Stay the course.' But if there's no trading going on, there are no commissions, right? I'm not worried about his job, but I'm plenty worried. In fact, I'm very, very anxious."
I tried to shift my focus back to my novel. "Everybody has a funny feeling these days," the main character said, as if continuing the conversation.
Our universal funny feeling arises from not knowing what's coming next and, no matter what business you're in, whether to truly stay the course.
The previous day, as the markets were posting their single greatest daily loss in seven years, I was having lunch in downtown Manhattan, not far from Wall Street, with Van Anderson, co-president of the powerhouse host agency America's Vacation Center.
He, too, was thinking about the markets, but part of his mind was also trying to sort out the meaning of the recent collapse of the British tour operator XL Leisure Group. He saw parallel consequences for both the travel and financial industries.
"Brad [Anderson, his brother and co-president] just sent me a link to a story in the London Telegraph," he said. "[Virgin Atlantic Chairman] Richard Branson is saying, essentially, 'XL's down; who's next?' Branson also said that the environment [for airlines] could be 'worse than the aftermath of 9/11.'"
According to the Telegraph article, XL, Britain's third-largest operator, left more than 85,000 people stranded abroad and had taken bookings for another 200,000 travelers who might lose some or all of their money.
A phrase toward the end of the article stuck in Anderson's mind: "Flight to quality."
In the financial markets, the term describes investors' movement to low-risk instruments in times of uncertainty. In the Telegraph article, a financial analyst used it to describe potential behavior among travelers, who, if in doubt about the stability of a travel company, will gravitate toward established players.
"Flight to quality. It's why we're with the Blue Box," Anderson said, referring to his affiliation with American Express. "It's why we're with the preferred vendors we're with. We look at the cultures of the supplier companies. We're not running to those who say they would let us rebate or who simply pay the most. What we're concerned with is: If there's a problem, will they be there to help?
"I think travelers will join the flight to quality," he continued. "They'll look closely at the integrity of anyone they buy travel from. I think specialists will win. Look at Wall Street: You don't want to talk to just any broker, you want to talk to someone who understands the market you're interested in, whether it's bonds or mergers and acquisitions or whatever. Consumers will be asking tough questions and will expect knowledgeable answers, or they'll go somewhere else."
I believe that, indeed, many travelers will likely gravitate to quality as outlined by Anderson. But remember, these are funny times, and travelers' behavior might be influenced in other ways as a result of turmoil in financial markets.
"Are you still planning to go to Argentina for your 10th anniversary?" Ms. Left asked Ms. Right toward the end of their conversation in the gym.
"I don't think we should," Ms. Right said. "Not now. I think that I'm going to cancel. Or maybe postpone. What do you think? Is that the right thing?"
Like their husbands -- who, of course, were clueless about how to advise their clients -- I wanted to chime in with, "No, no, just stay the course."
But instead I returned to my book. "You never know," said a character in my novel who clearly wanted to have the final word. "Especially nowadays."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].