George Canakis had arrived in Brussels the night before, ready to do business. Egyptian-born and raised in Greece, Canakis now lives in London and travels to Southeast Asia negotiating hotel deals for American Express.

Brussels is not a big market for Amex -- it contracts with less than a dozen hotels in Belgium. But in some regards, a small portfolio like this one makes his life difficult. Add a hotel in Paris, it can be easily absorbed, but should he find a hotel he likes in Brussels, hell likely have to drop some other property. He needs rooms for Travel Impressions, for gold and platinum card members and unaffiliated agencies that look to Amex as a wholesaler. He needs something for everyone, but if he signs up too many hotels, the 1,000 or so travelers Amex sends to Belgium each year will be diluted among too many properties, and his negotiating position will be weakened.

In the morning, he visits two properties, and the first, the Manos Premier Hotel, impresses him. It offers a good location, a large garden in the back, a restaurant with a good reputation and -- quite unexpected -- an atmospheric hammam (Turkish bath) in the basement.

Standing in the bar, he imagines a couple sitting, not wanting to be disturbed. This is a place for special occasions, he thinks. It all comes together nicely here.

The rates seem reasonable. The one thing gnawing at him is the TV in the room. It should be concealed, but its a small thing in the final analysis. He will contact the owners. If an allocation deal is struck, hell have time to think about which hotel to replace.

The business, he knows, keeps changing. After the first Gulf War, Amex stopped producing motorcoach brochures. Now, groups are done on an ad-hoc basis. He doesnt even bother asking for group rates in the initial negotiation. What kind of rate could he get for a hypothetical group? Call back when youve got 50 people and a date in mind, then youll have an interesting conversation.

Then theres the Internet. Anyone can book a hotel. You can no longer talk to clients about just the property. You need to talk about options. Sure, theyll ask for ideas, but people want to be in charge of their trip. In some ways, all thats different is now youre planning for a group of two.

Its almost 1 p.m. as Canakis enters the hall where the Flanders Travel Forum, a regional trade show, is being held. Almost all the Belgian properties with which he has contracts will be there.

A quick walk of the floor -- where is everyone? He heads to where sandwiches are laid out and sees his contact from Rezidor SAS. The focus of their conversation is soccer -- Canakis is a Liverpool fan, a choice not unrelated to being a Beatles fan -- but eventually he works in questions about Rezidors expansion.

For Canakis, this show is primarily about maintenance, to say hello to contacts and, given the high churn in sales positions, to meet any new sales managers who have come on the scene. But hes eager to meet with the GM of a hotel who sent him an image for a brochure -- and then complained that he didnt like the image. It will likely be resolved quickly but needs attention. At the booth, he discovers the GM is not present. Will he be at the party tonight? he asks.

He walks the floor methodically. When he visits a contact, he appears to be simply socializing. Talking about friends in common. Always finding a reason to thank them, and then -- as if an afterthought -- he leans in a bit, lowers his voice and says, I need some special offers. Something. Four nights for three. A free dinner. Something.

If theres any resistance, he patiently explains that people are looking at these things closely. It started in the U.S., but now its a worldwide trend. It works for people, he says with a shrug. Sometimes a bottle of wine will sway a customer from one property to another. Just a bottle of wine! So you see, its important.

The request is offered as avuncular advice, Canakis careful never to overtly suggest hes a rich uncle who could cut you out of the will. He believes -- he knows -- the relationship is front and center. He may need to pick up the phone on behalf of a client and call one of the people hes speaking with today and say, I have a problem. He needs a friend on the other end of the line.

Finally, its 3 P.M., and hes finished. He sits down for a beer, and surveys the scene. Everyone is happy, himself included.

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