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 he smiled.

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?

"Los Angeles."

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 Seas."

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 psychology).

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.


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