Arnie WeissmannSince her death last week, Signature President Michelle Morgan's importance to the industry has been well documented and supported with citations of numerous honors and awards. Her professional accomplishments are impressive by any standard. She had a tremendous impact on an industry, her own marketing association and the businesses of its suppliers and members.

But her most lasting and profound influence might have been on a personal level. Her extraordinary ability to connect with people transcended business and industry, and her life spoke to the importance of individual relationships within business.

The first person I saw as I arrived at the Hyatt Regency Miami to attend ASTA's Global Convention last week was a bleary-eyed Gary Murphy, vice president of national accounts for AmaWaterways. I had received word of Michelle's death on the flight to Miami, and Gary had been one of the people who came to mind upon hearing the news.

AmaWaterways is a preferred supplier to Signature, but after I attended the group's Owners Meeting in 2011, it was evident that Gary and Michelle had a strong friendship as well as a business relationship.

"Michelle is the first person in my life who I have been close to who has died," Gary told me as we spoke in the lobby. "She was really a mentor and shaped my life as much as anyone."

He related how negotiations with her were a personal learning experience and how she provided valuable advice even as they conducted business.

"She would always give it to me straight and point me in the right direction," he said.

On the day of her passing, her life dominated most conversations among industry leaders at the ASTA meeting. At the association's Advocacy Dinner, there were executives of two organizations that compete with Signature at the Marriott table, and both gave unprompted testimonials.

"As much as anyone in the industry, she moved agency networks from commission clubs to marketing organizations," said Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer of Travel Leaders Group. "We've looked closely at Michelle's body of work, and so many of the benefits that groups typically offer agency members have Michelle's fingerprints on them."

As was the case in many conversations that night, Ensemble Travel Group's Business Development Director Pam Irwin's memories mixed business with personal recollections. "She was not only a great businesswoman," she said, "but a beautiful lady and a beautiful grandmother. She would always talk about her grandkids."

I reminisced with Gloria Stock Mickelson, senior manager for education and training at Travel Leaders, about Michelle's early career, when both of them worked for the Ask Mr. Foster agency chain.

"I was a brand new employee, and Michelle provided moral support that was very important to me," she said.

Michelle's dedication to her members as individuals had become very clear to me in the immediate aftermath of the economic meltdown in late 2008. Travel Weekly had just launched a new end-of-the-year special issue called "Preview," in which, among other features, I interviewed executives in every industry sector to get their perspective on the prospects for the coming year.

I wrote Michelle and asked to set up a time for an interview on retailing and provided some questions I wanted to explore. She wrote back saying that as the result of the crisis and her upcoming annual sales meeting and trade show, she was very pressed for time, but that she would give the questions thoughtful consideration and try to get back to me with something in writing.

The next morning, an email from Michelle that had been sent in the wee hours was waiting in my inbox. It was a well-written manifesto, laying out what agents needed to do to survive the financial crisis. While it was analytic and straightforward -- in some respects, almost clinical and medicinal -- she clearly understood what was personally at stake for thousands of Travel Weekly readers.

Re-reading it after her death and reflecting on my conversation with Gary Murphy, I came to believe that something he said defined the basis not only for their relationship but perhaps hundreds of relationships that Michelle had in the industry:

"She would always give it to me straight and point me in the right direction."

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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