t the PhoCusWright Executive Conference in Orlando last week, some of the best-known marketing brains in the business stood at the podium, from InterActiveCorp's Barry Diller to Carlson Wagonlit Travel CEO Herve Gourio.

Listening from the audience, unrecognized by many of the younger attendees, was a man who perhaps had more travel marketing experience than anyone in the room: 78-year-old Hershel Sarbin.

Sarbin, former president of Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. in the 1970s when it owned Travel Weekly, is not merely an observer of marketing developments in travel. He has remained active in the field, most recently copublishing (with PhoCusWright) "Travel Solutions in CRM: 2003." The report identifies the state of customer relationship management in most segments of the industry, from travel agencies -- offline and on -- to airlines, hospitality, cruise lines and destinations.

The report defines the basic goal of CRM: "Identify customers, differentiate customers, engage customers and adapt to customer needs." Loyalty programs and e-mail marketing campaigns are two common manifestations of CRM technologies, which rest on robust customer databases, but the report demonstrates they can be used in myriad other ways to provide customers with value-focused benefits that bind customers to service providers.

Each chapter of the report focuses on a different industry segment, but what is most striking when reading the report straight through is realizing just how many CRM programs the average traveler is likely to encounter on a typical trip.

Travel agencies may first entice clients to buy with direct mail or e-mail solicitations that are practically custom-designed for the recipient -- even the choice of models in photos may be determined by the customers' past travel experiences, their ages, their incomes and where they live.

When travelers arrive at the airport, how they're treated by airline personnel may depend on their history with the carrier. Likewise, the pillow on their hotel bed may have been selected by CRM technology. And therein lies the true lesson of the report: If you are not engaging in an effective CRM program, you may, by comparison, appear less sophisticated, and even less caring, than other service providers who touch your customers during a trip.

But back to Sarbin. There's a sentence in the introductory chapter of the report in which the essence of CRM is defined as "a business strategy that builds long-term value in customer relationships and long-term profit through customer relationships." Sarbin has been preaching that strategy for the 18 years I've known him, and I suspect for another 40 or so before that. It's not surprising that CRM has become his passion -- at last, technology has caught up with his core beliefs and provided tools he could once only have dreamed of.

In Orlando, Hershel Sarbin must have taken some satisfaction in the knowledge that while he may not have been recognized by the younger marketers in the room, they all recognize his song, the song he's been singing, with feeling, for more than half a century.


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