Executive editor Donna Tunney is away for a few weeks. In place of her usual "Wandering" column, TWcrossroads brings you "From the Editor's Desk," written by editor in chief Arnie Weissmann.

f life deals you lemons, drink lemon-infused Stolichnaya vodka with your caviar.

So might be the advice of Rudi Steele, owner of Rudi Steele Travel in Dallas.

Rudi read that as a security precaution, only plastic cutlery would be given to passengers on airplanes, even in first class. So he walked into Neiman Marcus and bought a supply of mother-of-pearl spoons -- invisible to metal detectors -- to give as departure gifts to his carriage-trade clientele.

"God forbid one should have to eat caviar with a plastic spoon," he said.

While this may sound a bit over the top, I think Rudi has demonstrated how travel agents can take actions that reward themselves, their clients and their suppliers for years to come.

First, Rudi has shown he knows that all business environments, good and bad, present opportunities for deepening relationships with clients.

Second, he has shown he understands the unique value travel agents add when selling travel. The agent-client relationship works at an emotional level that cannot be duplicated by alternative distribution efforts.

"Bon voyage and welcome home gifts are always appreciated," Steele said, noting he usually sends champagne or flowers. But in giving the spoons, he forged a more personal bond because he addressed an emotional concern -- security -- head-on.

He also recognized that his clients might have ambivalent feelings about traveling in luxury at this time. When he presented them with a spoon, he told them, in effect, that it's OK to go about their lives as usual.

"Much has changed since Sept. 11, but it does not mean we should give up the better things in life -- in fact, they are now even more appreciated," he said.

Steele further addresses client concerns by telling them about international trips he has taken since the terrorist attacks. "I want to show our clientele that flying is safe and this globe is still worth exploring."

In fact, clients listening to Steele might conclude that it's their patriotic duty to travel.

"My own observation and reports from returning travelers indicate how much Americans are welcome guests, not only in Europe, but especially in Arab countries. If we want them to help us fight terrorism, we should not stop visiting them, and especially not at this time.

"This is the home of the brave. Let us demonstrate to the enemy and the world that we cannot be held hostage and that freedom to travel is still the very best bridge-builder."

I'm impressed with the efforts Rudi has made to connect with his clients, and I suspect that his suppliers have taken note, as well.

And when agents have this kind of intimacy with their clients, disintermediation is the last thing on the minds of suppliers.

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