he myth holds that, before the announcement of commission caps in 1995, travel agents were, by and large, order-takers. Support for the myth is found in numbers: ARC-appointed travel agencies peaked at 33,593 locations in 1995, and today, after caps, cuts and zero-base commissions, there are only about 27,000 locations.

It's true that a significant percentage of some agencies' revenue disappeared as air commissions withered, and about one-fifth of the total number of agencies were acquired, merged or shut their doors. Many of the remaining 80% of agents showed remarkable entrepreneurial resilience after base commissions were eliminated, but I submit that most of the agencies were doing far more than just taking orders even before the first announcement of commission caps.

I've recently met several agents who put lie to the myth of the order-takers. They were creative in expanding their businesses -- decades ago -- and more than a few were doing so while contributing significantly to the highest calling of the industry: promoting intercultural understanding. In today's and next week's column, I'd like to shine the spotlight on a few of them.

Twenty years ago, Linda Raymer was president of World Class Travel in Nashville (she now runs a division of Travelink, an American Express affiliate), and she was thinking about ways to expand her group business.

It occurred to her that whenever she visited Europe, she was especially drawn to the magnificent old cathedrals. She also loved the choir music of Mozart, Hayden and other classical composers. She began musing about how local choirs would no doubt love to sing in the great halls of the cathedrals in Europe.

And so she founded the International Church Music Festival. She paid a visit to the cathedral in Postsmith, England, and inquired whether it would be willing to play host to a festival that drew choirs from around the world. Officials there agreed, and Raymer began promoting her idea. A year later, she attracted 150 participants from the U.S., the U.K. and the Netherlands to attend -- and was the exclusive provider of travel for the choirs.

Today she draws 1,000 participants annually from all over the globe -- her most recent festival drew congregants from 13 denominations, singing in 15 languages. Over the years, she's held the festival in Oberammergau, Germany; Bern, Switzerland; and Coventry, England. She has since been contacted by other European cathedrals wishing to host festivals, and now her main concern is making sure prospective hosts are situated in towns with an infrastructure that can support a festival.

With the proceeds of the festivals, Raymer began a scholarship program that has paid for choirs from China, India, Kenya and eastern Europe to attend for free.

To conduct the choirs, she enlisted Sir David Willcocks, the former director of the Royal College of Music at King's College in Cambridge, England.

Today, while Raymer spends most of her time on relatively mundane operations for Travelink, she and her husband "own" the festival. She had always imagined one day they would focus on it exclusively -- it would be their retirement business. But on Sept. 11, 2001, she thought her dreams had come to an end. She expected cancellations for the 2002 festival to pour in.

"No one canceled," she said. "We've always been heavily dependent upon participants to guide the evolution of the festival, and in October 2001, we held a planning meeting with our advisory board. To our happy surprise, the members felt the festival was more important and had more meaning than ever. So, of course, we're carrying on."

The supplier community outside the airline industry has known for years that there are agencies, like Raymer's, that create business for them rather than simply take orders for them. Next week, we'll visit an Indiana agency that helps keep a Hawaiian tradition alive -- while adding considerably to its bottom line.


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