irlines justified the cutting of base commissions by imagining travel agents as mere "order-takers," forwarding along business that came in over their brick-and-mortar transoms.

Yet it's been my experience that travel agents not only add value to most consumer transactions, but are among the most creative entrepreneurs I've ever encountered. Last week in this space, I wrote about one agent, Linda Raymer, who, 20 years ago in Nashville, founded the International Church Music Festival, bringing choirs from every continent to sing in European cathedrals.

About the same time Linda looked east from Nashville to grow her business, Othmar Grueninger was looking west from Indianapolis. He was handling travel arrangements for some local high school bands, and it occurred to him that they might enjoy playing in parades in other parts of the country.

He began sending bands to play in the Rose Bowl parade and, after doing some research, discovered the Kamehameha Day parade, held in Honolulu every year in honor of the Hawaiian monarch credited with uniting the islands.

He contacted the organizers and started sending bands to march in that parade -- not just Indianapolis-area bands, but ones from West Coast states, as well.

"Pretty soon I was sending 1,500, 2,000 people a year. It wasn't just the band members but their families, too," Grueninger said.

But in 1995, when he called to get the dates of the parade, he got some bad news. "They told me they were canceling the parade. It had been funded by the state, and the state pulled the funding."

Grueninger found out details about the cost of the parade, and called the organizing committee with a proposition: He would fund the parade to the tune of $25,000 if they would continue to hold it.

"At the time, I thought I could find some other sponsors to help me share the costs -- perhaps some of the hotels where I put the bands and their families." He laughed. "I was wrong."

Hawaiian Airlines has since become a parade sponsor, though it hasn't defrayed Grueninger's financial commitment -- he has, in the past six years, given more than $125,000 to keep the parade going. Call it enlightened self-interest.

Grueninger has never seen a travel agent's role as a passive one. During Expo '67, the Montreal World's Fair, he found it difficult to get hotel space for his clients. So he bought a couple of train cars -- four Pullmans and a diner -- and put together a rail tour to Montreal. The train cars doubled as both transportation and accommodations.

"Even after the fair was over, I ran rail tours all over the country for about seven or eight years, until I couldn't get spare parts any more," he said. "It was great -- they always sold out."

Grueninger also has, in the course of his 48 years in business, bought buses -- "There's big money in the motorcoach business if the bus is full" -- and even, 25 years ago, a DC-7 airplane with 96 seats.

Somehow, during all this, Grueninger found time to be present at the founding of ARTA, and was its first full-term president.

Today, his company, Grueninger Cruises and Tours, still organizes 60 tours of one kind or another each year, from Branson to Honolulu to his native region in the Black Forest in Germany.

Though it sounds as if he must be terribly busy, Grueninger says he does what he does because he doesn't want to work too hard.

"They made me grand marshal of the Kamehameha Day parade one year," he said. "Now, that was hard work. I had to walk five miles and wave for three hours. My arm was so stiff the next morning."

So stiff, in fact, that he couldn't take any orders for the airlines: He hasn't sold a walk-in airline ticket for 15 years.


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