Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The redial button took on new importance for Richard Shane when, in his 20s, he worked as a media planner at Ogilvy & Mather and as an account director for McCann Erickson. He was responsible for communicating with significant clients -- American Express, Nestle, Kodak and TWA -- but he was also experiencing two to five epileptic seizures every week.

Amnesia involving events occurring a short period before his seizures was not uncommon, so often when he emerged from one and saw that his phone was off the hook, he'd have no idea who he had been speaking with when the seizure occurred.

He'd hit redial, explain what happened and apologize for the interruption, then continue his client discussions.

From age 22 to 44, Shane had an estimated 3,000 seizures. His redial button was getting noticeably worn.

When I met with him last week, Shane, the founder and CEO of The World's Greatest Vacations, had been seizure-free for 14 years, thanks to surgery that removed a portion of his brain that had been subject to abnormal electrical activity. (Only about 10% of epilepsy sufferers are candidates for such surgery. To qualify, the part of the brain affected must be specific rather than general and cannot overlap with portions of the brain needed for essential functions, such as language.)

Shane's success in life and business would seem to have faced long odds, though you wouldn't know it from his optimistic outlook, which I can only describe as relentless.

"I owe it to the people who got me better to be outstanding," he said. "I'm a medical miracle."

Richard Shane on his boat, the Freedom of the Seize, in Chelsea Piers in New York.
Richard Shane on his boat, the Freedom of the Seize, in Chelsea Piers in New York. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

A former competitive wrestler and semipro baseball player, Shane now trains for marathons that help raise money for epilepsy research. He not only got his driver's license back a year after the surgery, but he likes to hold business meetings on his boat, the Freedom of the Seize, threading through ferries and sightseeing vessels on the busy Hudson River to his "happy place" in front of the Statue of Liberty.

When he meets prospective clients for The World's Greatest Vacations, he, like many travel advisers, first finds himself explaining that, yes, his chosen field of business not only still exists, but it's more successful than ever. His model is decidedly old school: He's a direct-mail marketer.

Far from going the way of the dinosaur, paper envelopes delivered by postal workers to people's homes have actually grown in effectiveness in the online age. Shane referred me to a Data and Marketing Association study showing that the response rate to direct mail was 0.5% in 1993; in 2016, it had risen to 5.3%.

The results of his mailings have lured major cruise lines, hotel and resort companies, tour operators and even a travel agency consortium to become clients. He also offers suppliers the option to link to travel agencies if the supplier feels it might help facilitate a sale.

And, like many companies with pre-internet roots, he has embraced digital tools to grow a legacy analog business. In addition to the traditional response cards that come in his envelopes, recipients have the option of going online to get more information or book. His Facebook page has 500,000 followers.

Knowing that digital tools and communications enable him to run his business from anywhere, he plans to keep it going as he starts another project: He wants to become a video blogger focusing on health issues around the world. He has booked a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2 and plans to launch his series interviewing the ship's medical officer. He hopes to circumnavigate the globe, speaking with health officials around the world about local issues.

Although Shane was once reliant on redial, he now shows a willingness to reboot. And his story is compelling, of interest far beyond the community that advocates for epilepsy research.

On the bio page of his company website, he writes that there have been "no side effects [from the surgery] other than tremendous gratitude."
I'd add another: the ability to inspire.

Hopefully, it's contagious.

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