e looked more like Dustin Hoffman
playing a psychiatrist than an actual psychiatrist. He had a
generous, salt-and-pepper beard, and there was a casual, West Coast
style to his wardrobe. And he had Hoffman's eyes, especially when
We hadn't spoken during the first half of the flight, but then
he leaned over and asked if Chicago were my final destination. It
was, I said. And for him?
There were a few moments of silence. "What line of work are you
in?" he asked.
I told him and his eyes brightened. "I know Travel Weekly. I'm a
travel agent. I specialize in cruises."
As we began talking, it came out that owning a travel agency was
not his first career. He had been a psychiatrist. And a
specialization in psychiatry, it turns out, is good training for a
post-retirement gig as a travel agent.
"Most people don't know themselves," he said. "Everyone's got
issues. As an agent or a therapist, if I'm going to help, first I
need to uncover the issues."
He leaned closer and whispered, as if addressing an issue
involving patient confidentiality. "A neurosis is a long time in
the making and a long time in the resolution. Vacation planning,
fortunately, can be accomplished in much less time."
He does remember one customer who required a bit more probing
than usual. "With all clients, I start with, 'What are your needs?
What makes you happy? What makes you uncomfortable?' After talking
with him, I came up with a diagnosis." He paused, realizing he had
made a Freudian slip. "I mean, of course, a recommendation. I
thought he'd love a cruise. But he dismissed it initially.
"It turned out he had an eating disorder, and the thought of
having food available around the clock was revolting to him. But
when I told him about some of the upscale cruises, where the focus
was on quality of food rather than volume, he became quite
interested, and I ended up booking him on a Radisson Seven
Therapy isn't cheap, nor is the high-end travel he sells. How
does he approach sales with a client who seems somewhat phobic
about spending the money necessary to enjoy an upscale trip?
"In therapy, it's not your agenda that drives the process, it's
your patient's agenda," he said. "The same is true in travel.
You've got to get them to tell you what they're looking for. What
are their priorities? And if they say they want a nice cruise, you
have to ask them, well, if I find what you're looking for, will you
spend the money?
"I never ask what their budget is. I never try to pin down an
amount. If you ask how much they want to spend, that limits it
right from the start. Your creativity will be curtailed. You'll
start to look for the best cruise within specific confines rather
than doing the best you can do for them. Neither of you will be as
happy as you could be. Find out what they want, and if you get it
for them, price is seldom a barrier."
Salesmanship, of course, involves some knowledge of psychology.
I have no doubt that every travel agent has felt like an analyst
from time to time, employing skills that cross many disciplines
(family therapy and marriage counseling are all in a day's work;
I've heard stories that lead me to believe some agents occasionally
find themselves delving into the finer points of abnormal
And I'm quite sure all agents can relate to the statement "most
people don't know themselves."
One motivator that attracts agents to the trade is that they can
help people find happiness in a fairly short time frame. With
regards to the other motivator, well, if they could only charge the
same hourly fees as a therapist, I suspect there would be fewer
signs of depression in the agency ranks.