Arnie WeissmannOn stage, in casual conversations and with their very presence in Atlantic City last week, hundreds of travel agents and suppliers expressed their optimism about the future of the industry. Travel Weekly's LeisureWorld 2010 and Home Based Travel Agent Show and Conference, co-located at the Atlantic City Convention Center, was in every sense a refreshing, motivational and educational experience.

I'd like to say that it was such a high-quality conference that it left me speechless, but I must attribute that state to a sudden and acute attack of laryngitis that hit me on the first morning of the show. I croaked my way through moderating duties on the opening panel on Wednesday but gave up on taking the lead for what was to be a two-hour think tank/idea lab that evening. However, I don't think I could have improved upon the fine job of facilitating done by industry consultants Mary Pat Sullivan and Joanie Ogg.

The supplier presidents represented on the panel that I did moderate were not only upbeat but seemed genuinely excited about the prospects of 2011 (the theme of the panel). Dan Hanrahan of Celebrity Cruises, Mike Going of Funjet Vacations and Frank Marini (Collette Vacations' vice president of sales, sitting in for Dan Sullivan Jr., whose flight was delayed) all saw that they were in a better place than at this point last year and identified long-term trends that bode well for the industry, notably the arrival of baby boomers in their retirement years.

Jackie Friedman, president and general manager of the host agency Nexion, pointed out that one of the very things that worries a lot of travel agents can actually work in their favor. The ever-growing cornucopia of travel information and booking options on the Internet gives agents an opportunity to rescue the consumer who is simply overwhelmed by the vast number of options and the daunting task of sorting out useful information from meaningless chatter.

The think tank attracted agents from as far away as Russia, Jamaica, Brazil and Ukraine. The participants, who shared ideas, exchanged tips and talked about what worked and what didn't, ranged from novices ("What's a GDS?") to agents who contributed the type of insight that is hard-earned and reflects subtle insight. One agent turned a quote from the poet Maya Angelou into a post-trip customer satisfaction survey. The quote is "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." The agent sees a correlation between repeat business and the people who say they're most happy with how she made them feel. "And it's not about how they feel about me, but about how they feel," she stressed.

There was a hilarious exchange initiated by an agent who said she initially just charged fees to difficult clients whom she wanted to get rid of -- "the worst clients in the world" -- but discovered they willingly paid the fees. That made it easier for her to begin charging fees to all her clients, she said. Other agents in the room spoke up and said they had bad clients they would be happy to send her way.

A home-based agent turned to her peers for motivation to get out of her pajamas and get serious about working at home. The universal response was to get dressed and go to a place in the home that was dedicated solely to work. "Regard your kitchen as the office cafeteria where you only go for scheduled breaks and lunch," one attendee advised.

An agent offered that selling travel insurance has become such an important part of his product mix that the joke in his office was, "Would you like a cruise with your insurance?"

There were other interesting tips. When one participant asked others in the room where they met with clients (she didn't want to bring people into her home), one man responded he always suggested that they meet in the clients' home. "That's where their checkbook and credit cards are," he explained.

Another agent said she had a friend who always wore her name tag with her agency affiliation to the grocery store, to lure strangers to approach her and ask her travel-related questions.

One agent, pressed for time, said she hired her mother to pen handwritten thank-you notes to all her clients.

Being temporarily silenced gave me an interesting perspective. Eavesdropping in the sessions, halls and trade show floor made me sometimes feel more like an observer than a participant, but it was fun to go with the flow for a while rather than trying to direct it.

However, at other times it was difficult to be all-but-mute in a whirlwind of ideas and excitement, whether at the think tank, trade show, seminars, panels or simply sitting at a lunch table. Ultimately, the depth of my frustration at being unable to communicate underscored just how fascinating the topics and exchanges were.

If you missed the Atlantic City shows, you will have another chance to join with fellow agents in this type of atmosphere. Mark your calendar for Feb. 15 to 17, when we'll bring LeisureWorld 2011 and the Spring Home Based Travel Agent Show and Conference to the Aria Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. For more information, click here.

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


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