From Hell to Challah

Shari Wallack (left) of Buy the Sea and Karen Devine of 3D Cruise Partners in Chicago.
Shari Wallack (left) of Buy the Sea and Karen Devine of 3D Cruise Partners in Chicago.

I have spent the last 30 years working in the travel industry. First Club Med, then Renaissance and Celebrity Cruises. When Celebrity was sold to Royal Caribbean Group in 1997, I became a cruise and all-inclusive resort broker.

Our team at Buy the Sea had won multiple awards, and we were pulling in record numbers when coronavirus hit. Like everyone in the travel industry, we were shocked by the shutdowns, refunds, cancellations and commission recalls. It was overwhelming and devastating. And, like most people, there were moments of anxiety, a sense of loss, fear of the unknown and the hope that this too would pass.  Surely, we would be back to normal again. The next normal.

Instead of reaching inward, I reached outward and collaborated with my colleagues and even my competitors. Would we be more powerful together in convincing our travel partners to move or cancel events before force majeure language kicked in? How could we handle contracts that didn't have force majeure language? What did it mean to pivot? Were there any travel products we could still market? Perhaps we could create and sell individual travel certificates like the ones that lost popularity over a decade ago. Sitting back and doing nothing didn't seem like an option.

I was grateful to have a strong partnership with Playa Resorts, which owns and manages the Hyatt Ziva and Zilara brands. They didn't have an IIT (individual incentive travel) program in place, and I urged them to create one for a few of our clients. Their new, never-expiring gift card program made it easy for customers to say yes! The same thing happened with our preferred DMC partner, Amstar, which quickly rose to the occasion and created a pay-one-price for deluxe individual airport transfers, custom amenities and optional excursions.

These partnerships kept our company going. I am proud to say we have not lost a single member of our team.  While others were furloughing and laying off staff, we got creative and found new revenue streams to keep everyone employed.

Soon after the shutdown, I got on a conference call with Karen Devine of 3D Cruise Partners, who, like us, brokers cruises, both directly to clients and to incentive houses. This conversation wasn't business as usual, as our two companies sometimes compete in the corporate arena. Sharing information was taboo, but we decided that it was a good idea to share resources and best practices.

Brainstorming with Karen was particularly helpful. With her guidance, as well as my team's knowledge and experience, I could approach our mutual suppliers in the best possible way. One hundred percent of our customers got exactly what they needed in the end. Because of that, I believe Buy the Sea and 3D will come back stronger than before, and our clients will be even more loyal.

I think it's important to each of us to share what we did during the pandemic. I spent four months fighting the anxiety of losing my business and my identity.  What would I be without Buy the Sea? When you put your heart and soul into your company and watch it blossom for 18 years, only to watch it shrink, the effect is traumatic.

My trauma led me to an impromptu three-night stay in a mental hospital and a 95-day journey around the U.S., culminating in writing a memoir, "From Hell to Challah" (Radius Book Group, 2021) that will be released on July 13. Former Royal Caribbean International CEO Adam Goldstein has written the foreword.

It's a story of loss, human connection and the road to healing. The book follows my personal journey and my understanding the importance of developing relationships that go beyond business "guidelines." I have spent my life embracing people -- not just selling to them -- and it made all the difference in the world.

I was even invited to stay with my clients, in their homes, as the pandemic raged.

No one opens their home to a salesperson, but they do to a friend. The message is that your connections, caring and kindness matter, and it's a message that I am sure will resonate with everyone who has lost something or someone to Covid-19. Simply stated, we have no choice but to look through the windshield and keep moving forward. Good things are coming to the patient and hopeful, and when the memoir is released, it's my hope that we will all be in a better place, both figuratively and literally.

From Hell to Challah is available at, or by preorder on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.


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