Previously, agents possessed esoteric booking skills that enabled clients to travel. Today, it might be clients who hold esoteric knowledge, and if they migrate into the travel world, they have the potential to revolutionize it.
Four years ago, Lisa Morris was working as an actress. She traveled with the touring companies of "Cats," "Les Miserables," "Evita" and "Beauty and the Beast."
After 12 years, she had not only honed the skills of her craft but had gained a deep understanding of what entertainers need and want when they're on tour.
To her and her colleagues, the agency that managed their travel seemed clueless. Increasingly, she was the person her producers turned to on the road to fix things.
One day after she had helped negotiate appropriate accommodations at an incredibly low price for a star who found a hotel unacceptable, her producers asked if she would take over the travel arrangements for its next tour.
And a star was born.
Today, her Manhattan agency, Road Concierge, books $7 million to $8 million annually. She handles the touring companies of "Jersey Boys," "Hair," Blue Man Group and "A Chorus Line" as well as several touring artists, including Robin Williams, Ke$ha and Jesse McCartney. She and her small staff also offer concierge services to the likes of Paul McCartney and Jay-Z when they're in town.
"It's not about who has the biggest call center," she told me. "It's who will do it right. Booking travel is not rocket science. I learned all I needed to know about that in three weeks, and today I beat very large travel management companies to win business."
It would be impossible for a traditionally trained agent to assimilate her 12 years of road experience. She knows that while the lead singer may want a suite at the Waldorf, the bus driver's budget is likely $65 a night, he needs a place to park and wants to be near a laundromat.
She prides herself in her relentless negotiating style, and rather than simply connecting with a preferred-rates program, she negotiates directly with hotels. "I harass them, haggle and beat them down to get the rates that I want," she said. With one hotel chain, she said, she gets even better rates than IBM.
Her former travel agency wasn't the only one clueless about serving traveling entertainers. "Hotel general managers will hire an entertainment sales manager to work Monday through Friday, 9 to 5," she said. "It's all wrong. Anyone who knows entertainment knows it all happens on evenings and weekends.
"Entertainers often travel at night and arrive in the morning. If a big hotel put aside 50 rooms as day rooms and hired a housekeeper to work different hours, they'd fill up with entertainers."
Morris has had her share of demanding stars, too. "If they want 15 green M&Ms all in a row upon arrival, we can do that," she said. "When Prince called at 4 a.m. and wanted a yacht chartered for later that morning, I got it done. I will wake people up."
She says five-star hotels are usually set up to handle special requests, but at times they demonstrate baffling inflexibility.
"I handle someone who likes to make his own coffee," she said. "He doesn't want to see anyone in the morning, not even room service. But the hotel insisted their service standards wouldn't allow an in-room coffee maker. I offered to buy it and bring it over myself. They said no. And lost $400,000."
It doesn't hurt that Morris is confident, dedicated (with clients in every time zone, she sleeps with her cellphone strapped to her thigh) and is a natural at sales. She believes her presentation skills were instrumental in helping her win a national American Express Open Card contest for women entrepreneurs.
The possibility of a seamless transition into the industry by those with deep understanding of specific types of travelers represents a significant opportunity for the agency community. Circumstances led Morris to become an agent, but it strikes me that an ambitious agency owner could recruit people with similar understanding in other industries.
The mechanics of booking travel might not be rocket science, but I suspect the art of satisfying specific types of travelers would frustrate even NASA's greatest minds.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.