Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Keith Waldon's Departure Lounge has attracted a lot of media and industry attention since opening in 2013. The hybrid travel agency/coffee shop/wine bar in downtown Austin was heralded as an innovative model, making travel retailing visible again and providing an attractive setting for independent contractors to meet clients.

Three-and-a-half years in, Waldon is pivoting. Travel was selling nicely, but the coffee and wine receipts didn't justify the overhead involved in selling them. Downtown parking was problematic. And there was the issue of having a $50,000 travel sale interrupted by a customer wanting to buy a $7 glass of wine.

So Waldon is adjusting the model in significant ways. He's staying visible, moving to a shopping center in the upscale suburb of Westlake Hills, closer to both his clients and most of his home-based independent contractors. There's plenty of parking.

But he's going to stop selling wine, coffee and cheese. Mind you, he's not going to stop serving wine, coffee and cheese. He's just going to stop charging for them.

Waldon still believes that a lounge atmosphere with sophisticated food and beverage is an appealing setting for selling travel to a wealthy clientele, but he sees several advantages to simply providing refreshments gratis.

Waldon's current goal is to refine the model and perfect a prototype setting that he can franchise. He said he's had several inquiries from potential franchisees, but he wants to polish the concept further before actively beginning the franchising process, which involves often-complex legal filings that vary by state.

(The desire to franchise, in part, influenced his decision to stop selling coffee after he discovered that some large chain coffee shops, such as Starbucks, negotiate guaranteed category exclusivity at strip centers and malls which might also be the ideal settings for a Departure Lounge.)

Waldon discussed his plans with me when I visited him at the original Austin location last month, and he went public with them last week at Travel Weekly's Hawaii Leadership Forum, where he was a speaker.

To me, the idea of selling travel in a coffee shop setting was only part of what made the Departure Lounge concept attractive. As Travel Weekly columnist Richard Turen detailed this spring, Waldon is not the only retailer to recognize that the typical brick-and-mortar travel agency setting was uninspiring and to begin experimenting with new retail models.

In addition to creating the lounge's physical setting, Waldon, who was instrumental in shaping and elevating Virtuoso's consumer branding when he ran that consortium's public relations efforts, was innovative in his approach to qualifying clients. One of the features that most impressed me was an automated process to determine a client's travel persona.

Using a simple (and visual) survey, he elicits preferred travel activities, preferred methods of planning and, importantly, preferred brands. Together, they provide insight not only into a person's travel archetype but, with subtly, their budget.

"We don't ask how much money you have," Waldon said. "That's always a bad question on a first date."

In Hawaii, he also announced Global CommUnity, an online concept he's launching that encourages families to create 15-year travel strategies to steer their children into becoming "global citizens."

Waldon partnered on the project with Nashville-based graphic designer Christie Holmes, whom he had recruited to be a Departure Lounge travel adviser. (Waldon said he eyes every client as a potential independent contractor.)

They both were frustrated by a lack of tours that truly understood family dynamics. They wondered, for example, what would an appealing tour of the Colosseum in Rome look like to a 9-year-old?

Suppliers were approached, and Waldon said he really made them roll up their sleeves and bring back original ideas. They came up with 25 one-week tours at both four- and five-star levels. The tour of Rome includes a guide in a gladiator costume providing a similar outfit to a child and having a sword fight on the Colosseum grounds.

Global CommUnity offerings are divided into tours designed to appeal to families with young kids, teens or only adults. They also include pretrip amenities such as dolls in native costumes, packages of recipes (through a partnership with Whole Foods) and other items to get families prepared and excited.

But to me the most interesting aspect is that, for a $500 fee, one can develop, with the aid of an adviser, an interactive "family life travel map." It is a blueprint, in Waldon's words, for raising kids to be "good human beings." (Although Waldon had worked with Virtuoso on its Journey to Global Citizenship, which has similar goals, this initiative is not connected to Virtuoso.)

Depending on family circumstances, a travel adviser may sketch out plans to take three trips a year or one trip every three years, based in part on assumptions such as, for example, that the Galapagos are perfect for 8-year-olds.

Flexibility is built in, knowing that anything from Zika to a kid joining a soccer team might cause the need for adjustments.

And each trip includes a voluntourism project.

"Parents don't want to raise jackasses; they want to raise global citizens," Waldon told me in Austin. "And helping them do that is where I want to focus my time, both personally and professionally. Let's help make better humans. Starting young."


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