Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

As I finish my 75th orbit around an unremarkable star stuck off in the corner of a ho-hum galaxy I am reminded of the enormous importance of what I do. That probably had you blowing coffee out your nose, so let's wipe off the desk and get serious.

This thing we have chosen can be rewarding or maddening, sometimes both within seconds of one another. I consider myself fortunate to have met thousands of professionals in retail travel and have gotten to know hundreds of them, some well enough to call them friends.

All who fall into that "friend" category share a number of character traits, the most prominent being a passion for serving others by helping them enrich their lives through travel. Not surprisingly, others who believed the retail travel profession to be the path to riches with nothing more than a website and endless, glamorous, free travel requiring no effort or commitment were but a brief flash of light.

I know I have friends in this profession who take great satisfaction in being a part of another person's meaningful experience. Sometimes the income for the effort expended doesn't make sense but seeing photos of travelers and the expressions on their faces while they are taking part in something I helped make happen is compensation, as well.

I know that by the very nature of the fact that we serve such a broad cross section of the population that sooner or later we're going to have one person who won't be happy with anything. You know the one: Yes, I had dinner with the captain, got a complimentary upgrade, won $3,000 in the casino and the weather was perfect the entire week but one night the cabin steward didn't make a towel animal for our room and the entire cruise was ruined.

I know that in any group of clients/prospects numbering greater than 21 that there will be at least one of them who is smarter than me, found a lower price and will broadcast long and loud to all the others in the group how suspect my competence is for taking care of them. Those professionals who have never had this happen are either relatively new to the industry or are testing the actuarial odds of such an occurrence to a statistician's worst nightmare.

I know that I have to maintain an even disposition and sense of calm even when my stomach is flipping every three seconds or so. A call at 3 a.m. from your client in Rome, saying that their flight has been canceled or they missed the plane, is guaranteed to wake you up instantly and test the limits to which visceral muscles can contract and tense up without tearing.

I know that there will be moments of absolute hilarity in dealing with clients to which one can never react in real time. My favorite is the person who once called in August wanting an Alaska cruise in the first or second week of September. While it was obvious to our agent that the prospect had never cruised, the caller wanted to be sure our agent recognized that she was a savvy traveler and not one to be easily hoodwinked. And to be sure our agent knew she was serious, the client told our agent that she was ready to give her a credit card "right now as long as you can guarantee that the glaciers will still be out." My admonition to our agent when she came to my office asking what she should do was to get the credit card number because if the glaciers weren't out we had a lot worse problem than a credit card chargeback.

I know that employees make mistakes. I know that as a responsible employer I have an obligation to train staff in a way that they aren't exposed to potentially costly parts of this job until they have experience with lesser activities. One has to learn to crawl, then walk, before they run. Mistakes are a learning opportunity. Making the exact same mistake four or five times, though, suggests that either I'm a bad coach or they're a slow learner. I know I'm not a bad coach, and sometimes things just don't work out.

I know that suppliers make mistakes. I tend to stay with the ones that own the error and work to get the problem corrected and then figure out who is to blame. The best suppliers are the ones that know that we make mistakes, as well, and work to resolve the problems with as little pain for us as possible. Those suppliers tend to remember agents and agencies that dealt with supplier mistakes cooperatively rather than as adversaries.

I know there are those who think we, as travel professionals, travel all the time and get to go for free. My standard response is that as much as I love what I do, it is my profession and somebody has to stay home and watch the store. I confess that I once had a banker client make "the comment" and I managed to work into the conversation later that he must get loans all the time at no interest. I need to keep a camera handy to record facial expressions in just such circumstances (see "moments of absolute hilarity" above).

I know there are those who think we do what we do 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Why else would they send me an email at 10 p.m. and then fuss the next day for my tardiness when I called them back? On the other hand, I confess that there are clients to whom I give my home phone and cellphone numbers in case they need to reach me. Buying that $50,000 custom-produced vacation I worked up for you gets that sort of consideration. The $399 three-night cruise, not so much.

I know that sometimes the need arises to fire a client. While a rare occurrence, from time to time there will be a client who cannot be made happy no matter what we do. Our agents are trained to bend over backward to resolve situations to a client's satisfaction. Sometimes a client thinks that being a bully will influence the process. And, as a matter of fact, it does. When a client becomes abusive or threatens legal action, it's time to part company, sooner than later. There are two magic words that get my agents off the phone and put me on the call: "lawyer" and "sue." As a responsible employer I cannot and will not allow my staff to be intimidated or bullied by anyone.

I know there are those who really believe that when they paid their $60 or however much and $30 a month thereafter that they really were travel professionals. Some even got to call themselves a Certified Travel Consultant, which I always thought was curiously similar to the Travel Institute's Certified Travel Counselor program to the point that it might create confusion. Undoubtedly there are some who became travel professionals and didn't concern themselves with the multilevel recruiting aspects of these programs. For those who did not, being a travel professional is still out there waiting for you but not in your grasp yet.

I know that I can't always get to go the places I want to go, but once in a while it's time to cross one off the bucket list. I start my 76th orbit on Aug. 23. On Aug. 21, Sherrie and I, along with 14 friends, will board Fathom's Adonia, and I am going to indulge myself with a trip to Cuba. I'm pretty sure I won't have any problem finding $400 worth of goodies to bring back.

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