Once in a while, to help regain one's perspective on things, it is useful to state the obvious, so here goes: We are not in the buggy whip business.



That is to say, travel is not a mundane purchase for many consumers. Despite all the talk of "commoditization," travel remains desirable. Consumer demand for it isn't going to go the way of the buggy whip.

Of course, it is subject to external influences such as the economic climate and consumer attitudes toward safety and security. But these are short-term fluctuations. Even recessions are temporary.

For the long term, the fundamentals are sound, and we have seen no credible predictions that the demand for travel is headed relentlessly downward. Travel will bounce back because it remains highly desirable.

This has been the conventional wisdom for a long time, and we've always thought that travel's desirability was a good thing. Recent events, however, suggest that this desirability is a double-edged sword. In the current downturn, the desirability of travel seems to be working against it, arousing the meanest kind of envy.

The emotional backlash against travel that is bedeviling the meetings-and-incentives industry reached a new level in North Dakota last week when the CEO of the state's Blue Cross Blue Shield plan was fired for organizing an incentive trip.

He was fired not because the trip was particularly extravagant or arranged in a dishonest fashion. He was fired because it was a trip, period.

According to one local newspaper, an annual incentive trip for top sales producers has been a part of the Blue Cross Blue Shield compensation package for 18 years, and the total cost of this year's trip, to Grand Cayman, amounted to 90 cents per policyholder.

We said in this space some weeks ago that it would be a sad day when companies forgo legitimate travel for fear that it would "look bad." Now we've arrived at an even sadder day, when a CEO is sacked not because an expenditure was irresponsible or unjustified, but because it triggered an irrational response among consumers.

U.S. Travel Association President Roger Dow has complained that a "witch hunt" mentality has taken root and is demonizing travel. He and other industry leaders have expended considerable energy lately in addressing the issue and even managed to bring the matter to the attention of President Obama.

But what's to be done? Certainly it will help if our political leaders take U.S. Travel's advice and "tone down the rhetoric," but that's not the whole answer.

It is said that when a rising tide lifts all boats, people don't mind much if some boats seem to be rising higher, as long as everybody is getting a lift.

The corollary seems to be that in bad times, it's prudent to keep your furs in the closet. Or as the Detroit auto-makers learned, keep the corporate jet in the hangar. Events in North Dakota now suggest, however, that prudence is no longer enough.

Somehow, Blue Cross Blue Shield policyholders in North Dakota not only got it into their heads that it was inappropriate to spend money on travel to motivate or reward a sales force, but they scared the organization's governing board into sacking the CEO.

We don't know how those attitudes took root, but we don't think the industry can lay the blame entirely on political rhetoric in Washington.

Something else is at work, and the industry better soon figure out what it is.

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