Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The U.S. Travel Association's "Project: Time Off" campaign, which urges Americans to use more of the 429 million vacation days they leave on the table every year, is gaining traction. The association's stats have begun showing up in more and more articles, and today's Time magazine cover story is about why Americans leave an average of 3.2 vacation days unused every year. It features a photo of an empty beach behind the headline, "Who killed summer vacation?"

Portions of the article read more like a well-written autopsy report than the Agatha Christie mysteries that were once read on that empty beach. And the answer to "Who killed..." is the usual suspects. If Hercules Poirot were called in, he might conclude it was a probable suicide, curious only in that a variety of weapons were used to cause multiple self-inflicted wounds.

Technology is, of course, a primary culprit. Technology, which in my youth promised to deliver four-day workweeks, has created the seven-day workweek, and I wonder how bad the U.S. Travel data would look if we also added back the hours in which we're answering business email and making business phone calls when we're supposed to be spending earned vacation days.

With the exception of the 17% of surveyed managers who believe that taking one's full vacation indicates a lack of dedication, Corporate America does seem convinced of the benefits of time off. Captains of industry no doubt saw that employees living in countries with higher gross domestic product per capita take considerably more vacation days, on average, than Americans.

The article lists several ways in which companies are trying to tempt, cajole and even bribe employees to take more time off. One company offers $7,500 to be used for a vacation, but it's only paid if the employee stays off company communication systems. No email, no phone.

H&M employees can be earning four weeks of vacation in their second year.

My interest was piqued by the approach adopted by organizers of the TED conferences: The company simply closes for two weeks each year, providing additional relief from internal emails that might otherwise pile up.

Even U.S. Travel resorts to bribery, offering a $500 bonus to employees who use all their vacation time. As a result, 91% now say they do, up from 19%.

The writer of the Time article, Jack Dickey, is dismissive of one approach: the offer of unlimited vacation. Under this scheme, employees take what vacation time they want, though requests still require a manager's signoff. He notes Tribune Publishing rescinded the policy after just two weeks because employees protested. "Factor in Americans' penchant for overwork and employers' tendency to understaff ... [and] unlimited vacation appears as nothing more than faux autonomy, like a dog constrained by an invisible fence," Dickey wrote.

Reading this reminded me that I know of one company in the travel space that has adopted an unlimited vacation policy: the Airline Reporting Corporation. I remembered that ARC's CEO, Mike Premo, told me in early 2013 that the company had switched to a vacation policy that could be reduced to four words: "Take what you want."

I called him last week and asked him to walk me through its evolution. Why had he instituted the policy? How has it played out?

"The catalytic moment for me was a conversation with our CFO/treasurer in August 2011," he said. "There had been a snafu, and it appeared we may have under-accrued our vacation liability. [Unused, but earned, employee vacation days are considered a liability on balance sheets.] It was to the tune of half a million dollars, a significant amount. It got me thinking, 'How do I make sure this doesn't happen again?'"

Vacation time had also become a source of discontent for employees who, with a three-week cap on carryover days, sometimes wanted to take the entire month of December off.

The new method results in about the same number of days off per employee, he said, but it has reduced unscheduled absences and promotes teamwork because employee and manager discuss the best time to take vacation, rather than it being a presumed entitlement.

It also reduces resentment when an employee discovers a newer employee had negotiated more vacation time than s/he had.

The new policy did, however, create some unhappiness among senior employees who felt they lost status when others were being given what they had to earn through longevity. In partial compensation, "we now have a special dinner to recognize those senior employees," Premo said.

ARC has also found the policy to be very beneficial when it comes to recruiting, particularly in the hiring of technology workers from different countries "who don't want to wait four or five years to go back to India or China. It has sometimes made the difference in their accepting an offer from us versus another company."

Have there been any abuses of the system among ARC's 400 or so employees? "We haven't had to discipline anyone," Premo said. "You don't often have unabashed success, but I think this program is one. My only regret is we didn't do it sooner."

And, he said, the policy makes a broader statement. "We've been trying to change the culture here for some time, and we also saw this as an opportunity to say to the market that we're a fundamentally different company than we've been. We're more flexible, and it's a message we want to send inside the company and out."

Premo is aware of only one other travel company, Expedia, that has a similar policy, and he reached out to them for the purposes of benchmarking.

"When I hear people in a conversation say, 'I don't know if I have the time off' to do something, all I can think is, 'That's the Stone Age you're living in.'"

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