"We mock the things we are to be." -- Mel Brooks
It just never occurred to me that I would open anything other than a brick-and-mortar travel agency. I had no interest in the freedom I might achieve by working at home, such as wearing my bathrobe to work. I yearned to sit down with my clients, to read their expressions, to feel their energy, to gauge their joy as they described past and future travels. I yearned to share coffee with clients and to offer them fresh croissants in the morning.
When I opened our first brick-and-mortar 25 years ago, I wanted it to look good enough to impress the general manager of the Dorchester when he came a-calling. If someone named "Tauck" walked in the door, I wanted them to be impressed with what they saw. I wanted Abercrombie and Kent to feel at home in our corporate living room. I couldn't imagine doing meetings at the kitchen counter when the folks from Singapore Airlines came by or when Regent Seven Seas needed to hold a marketing meeting with our staff. I just didn't get the whole home-based thing.
Although you'd never know it by reading this column, I got my MBA and did doctoral work before determining that I would toil in travel. But I didn't pay for all that education just to work 10 steps from my washer and dryer. No, I was a businessperson. I had credentials. I was not going to be a home-based anything. I needed to carry a briefcase to work, even if there was nothing in it but a sandwich.
There was, of course, also the matter of respect within the industry. Not only would I never meet a supplier, I would quickly be dismissed with the line, "Oh, Turen. He works out of his home."
So we opened our first office in a large, white, two-story building that had once belonged to the mayor of Naperville, Ill., now Chicago's largest bedroom suburb and the third-largest city in Illinois. There were 37 travel agencies in Naperville on the day we opened, and we hoped to be different. We were in a multipurpose building with a tea room next door and small fashion-related shops above us.
I loved being "downtown," pressing a button and having tea and scones delivered to my clients. I enjoyed the eccentricities of sharing space with other entrepreneurs. Outside our ground floor office was a small courtyard where, on a sunny day, I could talk to clients and newfound friends, like the president of the local college, who would walk in for a chat when he needed a break.
Selling travel in a multipurpose building with other shopkeepers had its bizarre moments. The dress shop upstairs would hire local housewives to model dresses and parade through our building. I would be sitting behind my desk deep in conversation with a client when the door would open, a "model" would walk in and, without a word, start revolving around in circles, pausing only for her version of a runway pose. The client would always seem a bit bewildered.
After a few years of selling in that environment, we were approached by a group representing several major airlines. They were going to open the Chicago area's largest "travel center" in a new shopping center in our town, and they wanted us to join them.
The travel center was a big success, and our glassed-in office was right by the front door. You had to walk past us to get into a large open space where United, Delta and Continental each had uniformed staff manning ticket counters.
They were so busy that visitors had to take a number, and there were often long lines snaking all the way down to our office space. So the waiting executives would look in on us to see what we were doing.
I must confess that we took advantage of this opportunity. We immediately brought in a wine-and-food cart that could be wheeled to each desk and left out in full view. Guests in our office were offered a glass of our private-label vintages along with selections from our bakery cart.
We lived in the belly of the beast, doling out coffee a la crema and homemade biscotti in the morning and some decent cabernets along with open-faced pate sandwiches in the afternoon, while the airline customers stood outside and watched. We did this for 11 years, and we soon had no need to solicit clients.
Then the airlines, led by United, decided that they didn't need to make their customers stand in line when they could instead have them wait on hold at work or at home. All ticket offices, save those at the airport, were to be closed. We needed to move our brick-and-mortar to a third location.
I had thought that I would like to open something expansive. A beautiful riverwalk meanders through town, but rents were outrageous, long leases were required and space would be hard to find. It didn't matter. There were two Starbucks and seven places you could have a panini, so I imagined my out-of-office conversations with clients and a great lifestyle. But my wife was cautious, and she suggested that I call 20 good clients at random and see how they might feel about an office move downtown.
It was a fascinating exercise. All 20, every one, urged us not to move downtown, because they were concerned about the time it might take to find a parking place anywhere near our office.
So we ruled out the move and headed to Europe on one of our personally escorted tours. Our attorney happened to be in the group, and she asked us if we would consider moving in with her. She was developing a new office building concept in beautiful space right opposite the tollway entrance, two hotels and a slew of really good restaurants. And there would be lots of parking by the front door.
So now we're in a law firm. We have conference rooms, lots of office buzz and a really excellent environment for our staff.
In fact, our staff is so comfortable there that my wife and I moved out of state, where I am -- say it loud and say it proud -- a home-based owner whose wonderful staff is brick and mortar.
It still feels like the whole world is a tuxedo and I am a pair of brown loafers. But I love being "home-based," and I am twice as productive as I ever was, with walks on the beach and a swim available between phone calls.
Why, I wonder, didn't I figure this out a while back?
Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen owns Churchill & Turen Ltd., a luxury vacation firm based in Naples, Fla. He is also managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales training and marketing consultancy. Contact him at [email protected].