Arnie WeissmannSo, were all feeling a lot better, right? Its shaping up to be an OK year, maybe even a good or great year -- certainly a welcome relief after 2002 and 2003. But were survivors, right? So we can ignore the voices, right?

You know the voices. They keep pointing out that, ultimately, we have less control over our businesses than we once thought. No matter how smart we were, we couldnt keep from backsliding in the face of terrorism, a bad economy, SARS and war. And the voices suggest that were only doing well in 2004 because were riding a good cycle up, just as we rode a bad cycle down.

I met a man who doesnt hear the voices. He sits on the fulcrum as the cycles seesaw around him, good and bad, good and bad. Hes in the travel industry, but it doesnt seem to matter very much how everybody else is doing -- the last three years were good, and this year looks even better.

The man with the fixed smile is Surjit Babra, chairman and president of the Skylink Group. He started the $500 million company 25 years ago at the age of 19 with $3,000 of his own money.

Most travel agents know Skylink Travel as a long-lived air consolidator in a segment that is notorious for sudden deaths. It also compiled 18,000 negotiated hotel rates for agents and announced two weeks ago that it was becoming a tour operator, offering escorted tours and packages to Europe, the Far East, the South Pacific and southern Africa.

Less known to the industry is the Skylink Groups other division, Skylink Aviation. Its the one that provides the balance to the Travel group.

Skylink Aviation leases airplane and helicopter services to the United Nations and individual governments (the U.S. among them) for relief operations and troop transport. It ferries U.N. peacekeepers, drops food over Kosovo and Afghanistan and brings relief supplies to Angola.

When there is trouble in the world, the travel business goes down and the aviation division goes up, Babra said. And, occasionally, in a year like 2004, the laws of gravity are defied and both sides of the seesaw rise.

Babra does not suggest that his business has grown without its share of setbacks.

On my wall is my degree from the University of Skylink, he said. I have a running total of mistakes I have made and how much they have cost me. So far, Im up to $16 million.

The common link in all my mistakes was that I made quick, emotional decisions, he said, which explains why he waited until 2004 before deciding to launch a Web site, I decided to wait until the dust settled around the Web, and it was very clear what to do.

The Web site is also his first move into consumer-direct marketing, although he points out that there is level-field pricing for products sold through travel agents.

Its not for everyone, but opening a disaster-relief branch would seem the perfect complement to any travel business. And if you could further specialize in disaster relief to travel companies, at last youd have found the ultimate hedge.

And the voices would go away.

  A further word (well never hear the final word) on home agents. In reaction to my column On the bubble (Aug. 2), Tom Ogg wrote last week in a Travel Weekly Forum (see "Trouble with 'On the bubble' ") that, contrary to my assertion that culls low-producing agencies from its rolls, home agents make up almost 20% of V.coms total membership.

I asked President Dick Knodt for clarification. The number of home agents we have is a mysterious thing to get at, he replied. He guessed about 10% of his member agencies do some kind of hosting, but how many home agents they host is impossible to know.


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