A woman I know spent the weeks leading up to Christmas on a buying spree. She's not wealthy; she and her husband are both social workers. She's a generous soul and did not hold back on gift-giving, but what seemed remarkable to me was that she was also generous to herself, spending more on big-ticket items for her household over the past four weeks than she had over the previous four years.
"I went into my savings and took out the money to buy things we've been wanting for a long time," she said.
She's in her late 50s, and her husband is in his late 60s. I asked her why she was dipping into savings as his retirement neared.
"Our investments that are tied to the stock market are down about 40%," she said. "But so many things I've been wanting are reduced 50% to 70%. I just realized that the recession is offering the best buying environment I can recall. And I'm getting things that will last a long time, well into our retirement."
When things get back to normal, she said, the stock market will go up, but prices will go up even more.
"I've really thought this through," she said, "and I can't think of why I shouldn't do this."
It would certainly do our economy some good if more people who have the ability to spend would follow her train of logic and do so. The challenge for Travel Weekly's readers, of course, is to foster a similar attitude toward spending on travel.
Suppliers are certainly doing their part: The prices on cruises and vacation packages in the first quarter of 2009 are simply astounding.
Part of the rationale that my social worker friend used to justify her spending was to make purchases that will "last a long time," which begs the question: Can consumers be convinced that a seven-day vacation will "last a long time"?
Personally, I know that although I've spent a good deal of money over the years on entertainment systems, dishwashers, mattresses, computers, cameras, shoes and cell phones, I cannot really recall very much about any of them after they were replaced.
On the other hand, there is not a leisure trip that I've taken that I don't recall clearly and with pleasure. Indeed, travel experiences do "last a long time."
Still, it requires some salesmanship to get that message across. The list of talents travel agency owners need in the current economic environment seems to just keep growing, and salesmanship ranks right up there with financial, operational and marketing skills.
And present times call for something more than just competent salesmanship. We've all met people who, when asked what they do, reply that they're "in sales." And their resumes might show they've successfully peddled everything from cheese to centrifuges.
But I'm guessing that in 2009, those who not only sell travel but also enjoy traveling as much as their most passionate client will have an edge. The battle for dollars in 2009 won't be won by the industries that have the most salespeople knocking on doors but by the ones that are best at connecting the enthusiasts on both sides of the seller/buyer equation.
That's good news for travel. It is one of a handful of industries peopled by professional enthusiasts and whose buyer/seller community shares a strong bond.
In his latest book, "Outliers," business writer Malcolm Gladwell (author of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink") puts "community" in an interesting perspective. In the introduction, he writes about the small village of Roseto, Pa., whose citizens, doctors discovered, had abnormally good health. No heart disease was found in anyone under the age of 55. In fact, the death rate for most disease was 30% to 35% lower than the national average. There were no peptic ulcers. There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction and very little crime. No one was on welfare. When people died, they died of old age.
Doctors examined their diet, blood and DNA, and found no explanation. In fact, many of the villagers smoked and were overweight and, on average, a frightening 41% of their calories came from fat.
Investigators finally figured out that what protected the citizens of Roseto was an incredible sense of community. Gladwell writes, "You had to appreciate the idea that community -- the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with -- has a profound effect on who we are."
The strength of the travel community, based in part on the common love of travel among sellers and consumers, might well afford us an extra measure of protection in 2009. Within the travel industry, suppliers and agencies might be competitive, but above our parochial concerns, we all value what travel brings to life.
My prediction for the new year is that those who both work intelligently to preserve their businesses in 2009 and best articulate the benefits of travel to their clients will be around to welcome 2010 with their businesses intact.
Not many traveling consumers will realize on their own, as my friend the social worker did, that the current economy can work in their favor when it comes to travel planning. Most will need to be taken by the hand by someone equally zealous about travel, by someone who can successfully frame the rare opportunities that abound in 2009.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].