Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Some odds and ends, a little light summer reading for you as you ease back from the Fourth of July break.

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Last week at Global Travel Marketplace (GTM), a Northstar Travel Media event affiliated with Travel Weekly, Norwegian Cruise Line President Andy Stuart revealed the name of the man who inspired him to move to branded entertainment for his line: Simon Cowell, the former (and snarkiest) "American Idol" judge. Stuart was ultimately spurred to action, he said, by annoyance at hearing Cowell continually put down the worst acts by telling them, "You belong on a cruise ship."

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Also at GTM, a supplier told me she sees social media as a huge benefit to the travel industry. "It's like a Jedi mind trick," she said. "Every time I get on Facebook, I'm seeing photos of someone else's vacation and hearing their descriptions of all the great things they're doing. And I'm thinking if they can afford to go there, I can go, too."

Social media is certainly more efficient than its pre-digital predecessor, cocktail party chatter, in creating vacation envy. And it has other advantages: It's like a 24/7 cocktail party in which everyone talks about their vacation while still on it, often while still a little tipsy.

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It's too early to say if I'm onto a trend, but I've recently run into a couple of travel agency models, one very large and one very small, whose success seems to hinge on developing expertise at opposite ends of the same continuum. WGY (which stands for "We Got You") is, in one part of its business, a very high-end, boutique concierge service whose celebrity and VIP members pay up to $12,000 a year to, for example, get invited to exclusive parties or, in what we have to believe was a one-off request, seek a live monkey for a celebration on very short notice.

Its other revenue stream? Providing discount inventory to a flash-sale club.

Also operating concurrent, though very different, approaches on a much larger scale is Fareportal, No. 9 on the Travel Weekly Power List, with $4.1 billion in sales. It's not only the fourth largest online seller of travel and very technology-driven, but employs 2,000 travel advisers, which CEO Sam Jain told me he believes is the primary reason he has "the highest [loyalty] rates" among OTAs.

Both models seem counterintuitive, since common wisdom holds it's best to develop deep expertise in one operational approach. It would appear that each has, by happenstance or design, a built-in hedge against a pendulum swing in the economy or consumer preferences. A deliberate strategy of counterbalanced strengths might be an emerging model for retailers.

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Speaking of polar opposite behavior: Among two trends that jumped out at me after reading the 30-plus page Hurun Report ("Nobody Knows China's Rich Better") were these two, somewhat irreconcilable observations about Chinese traveler preferences:

  1. Chinese are the world's largest consumers of duty-free shopping.
  2. The North and South poles are the most popular destinations for wealthy Chinese.

Now, if only someone could establish export-taxing bodies in the Arctic and Antarctica, the Chinese would finally be able to enjoy both of their passions in one trip.

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I recently went to a highly acclaimed Austin restaurant, Odd Duck, with a friend who owns other restaurants in Austin. We were both surprised to see "Beer for the kitchen -- $1" printed on the menu.

My friend was perplexed. "They've got it backwards," he said. "When you're in my house, let me buy you a beer."

I was confused on a different level. The request for beer for the kitchen suggested, perhaps, that this option might get you a more generous (or in some other way "special") serving, but I also suspected there might be a penalty for those who did not take them up on the offer. I did opt to buy the kitchen a beer, but also found myself hoping this amorphously defined ancillary fee does not become the norm in restaurants.

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Overheard from a male attendee at GTM last week: "I'm not gay, but my husband is."

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Steve Lincoln of Lincoln Travel was recently telling me how he has won sales awards from Nexion for nine consecutive years. In fact, for the past five years, he has won two awards each year, one for selling $1 million in air and another for selling $500,000 in nonair from preferred suppliers.

I said that seemed all the more impressive because his agency was in Bridgewater, Va., population 5,879.

"Well," he said, "it's a nice place to live, but a great place to leave."

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I know I promised light reading, but I will end with some comments from one of my favorite -- and, for the time being, optimistic -- economists, Tulane University's Peter Ricchiuti. Among the points I heard him make a few weeks ago was that low fuel prices are here to stay, and oil demand will peak in 10 years. It's not because reserves will dry up, but rather because of the development of alternative fuels.

"The Saudis are trying to lengthen that time, but they know that the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones," Ricchiuti said.

He went on to observe that "coal has had it. The only place you'll see it is in the stockings of naughty children."

Ricchiuti is optimistic because the long-term trend in corporate profits are "not good, not great, but flat-out phenomenal. The market doesn't care about [current events and politics]; it cares about corporate profits. The rest is noise and meaningless, like the buffet at a strip club. It's just not that important."

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