On her birthday last week, Priscilla Alexander, president of upscale Protravel International (No. 19 on the Travel Weekly Power List), left me a voicemail message: "Enough with the flu and gloom. It's over."
She also invited me to join her that night for Spring Travel Awakening, an event her agency was organizing. She had sent invitations to Protravel's New York-area clients and lined up 50 suppliers for a consumer travel show.
Alexander was standing at the entrance when I arrived. "We've got 700 people," she said.
Judging by the energy in the room, she was getting her birthday wish: Hundreds of clients seriously engaged in discussions with hoteliers, cruise line reps, tour operators, airlines and destination marketers.
This was one of several things last week that led me to wonder if there has been a shift in America's psyche. Are people ready to shake off the doldrums? Is the desire to travel overcoming other concerns? To paraphrase the New York Times, do we now know what the bottom looks like?
For the moment, there appears to be a shift in the zeitgeist. There has been a faint but welcome drumbeat of small, hopeful stories. Home prices in areas that were hit hard early in the recession are beginning to rebound. The stock market rose for several consecutive days last week. Hiring, it was reported, is surprisingly robust (the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that although 4.8 million people lost or left their jobs in February, 4.3 million were hired).
Protravel's senior vice president, Andy Pesky, suggested to me that we might be at the beginning of a rebound. "There is a little upturn in bookings," he said.
If that's true broadly, I have a theory about why: The rapid rise and relatively quick deflation of panic over the H1N1 swine flu has made some people feel foolish for being easily spooked.
There's no question that most influenzas are serious, and as this one came out of the gate, it looked particularly virulent. But even as it continues to spread, its mortality rate does not appear to be as frightening as early reports had indicated. My sense is that some of those who did panic are now feeling a bit chagrined and are pondering whether they have, in several ways, been unnecessarily denying themselves the pleasure of travel.
It's true that Protravel clients are less likely to feel economic pressure than the populace as a whole, but suppliers I spoke with at the event said they saw other agencies beginning to work actively to spur new business.
"We were contacted by an agency in Mobile, Ala., to participate in a similar event," said Patti Buffolano, general manager of Micato Safaris.
Tauck World Discovery's senior vice president of sales and marketing, Navin Sawhney, said he's seeing a recent bump in "phone volume and bookings, close in and well in advance."
And Protravel, it turns out, is proactive on several fronts. COO Tony Shepherd said the agency was sending out daily email this month under the heading "Ready, Set, Travel!" and that they had gotten a very positive response.
I have to confess I'm a little nervous about such a seemingly rapid change in attitude; it suggests that it wouldn't take much to push people back the other way. But for the moment, spring is in the air, and perhaps consumers will soon be, too.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/awtravelweekly.