he universe of travel suppliers is inherently immeasurable, but we know there are more than 100,000 hotels that have at least 50 rooms, that tour operators spring up to serve every interest, lifestyle and financial demographic, and thousands of cities have tourism promotion boards.

On top of that, there are hundreds of companies involved in the cruise, air transport, car rental and theme park segments. Of this multitude of suppliers, Travel Weekly readers voted to select just 99 companies as finalists in our first Readers Choice Awards competition.

Our readership includes agents, industry marketing executives and the CEOs of the world's largest travel companies. It's a group uniquely qualified to evaluate the crowded field. An individual traveler, even one unrestrained by monetary considerations, can etch only a tiny line around the globe in a year. But industry professionals -- agents, in particular -- not only travel extensively, but get feedback from hundreds of consumers whose combined experiences give a more credible ring to any judgment.

In putting together the awards, publisher Bob Sullivan and I studied a number of other travel publications that have contests. After our finalists list was tabulated, I looked back at some of the other "Best of" lists, and it seemed clear that ours was, in fact, the definitive list. The results from consumer travel publications will naturally skew to the demographics of that magazine's target readership -- upscale publications will end up with luxury suppliers as winners, value-oriented publications will have a lot of mass-market suppliers on their lists. Ours is the only one that truly measures excellence across the industry as a whole.

We asked voters to focus on strict criteria that cut across all categories: quality of facilities and services, staff proficiency and quantity and quality of amenities. As a result, the finalists included value-oriented suppliers such as Carnival Cruise Lines and Apple Vacations, as well as names synonymous with luxury, like Crystal Cruises and The Ritz Hotel in Paris.

The voting was for companies, but companies are created and nurtured by individuals. Some individuals not only guide their corporations to new heights, but in the process have a significant impact on how the industry functions. And there are rare individuals whose influence extends beyond their firm and the industry to the world at large.

On the night of the Readers Choice Awards banquet, Travel Weekly honored two such individuals, Gordon "Butch" Stewart and Arthur Tauck. Stewart exerts a regional impact that has all but redrawn the map of the Caribbean. Tauck not only created a leadership bridge between his father and his children, but built bridges between travelers on his company's tours and the lands and cultures they visited. Both men were given Travel Weekly Lifetime Achievement awards.

It seems a fitting way to begin the new year to take a close look at the accomplishments of Butch, Arthur and the 99 finalists. When it comes to keeping your New Year's resolutions, it won't hurt to review the practices of the winners of Travel Weekly's Readers Choice Awards for a bit of inspiration.

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Look for additional details on this article in the April 22 issue of Travel Weekly.

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