Richard Turen
Richard Turen

For absolutely no rational reason, I have watched the Academy Awards for the past three decades or so. During the last several years, I sit down with my iPad and mostly do work while the winners walk up the red carpet.

What, I wonder, are they thinking at that moment? Years ago, one actress walked up on the stage, accepted her award, and exclaimed that it felt like an "out-of-body experience."

Today, I want to share a moment of dramatic irony with you that made me recall those words.

On a sweltering Sunday this August, I was sitting in the Grand Ballroom of the Bellagio in Las Vegas attending the largest single event the property has ever hosted. It was the opening session of Virtuoso's Travel Week. I was attending, wearing my agency owner hat, but the media was there in force. There were 60 journalists from six countries, and CNBC's "Squawk Box" and NBC's "Today" show were doing segments on-site.

There were 4,800-plus people in the audience, including managers of many of the world's top hotel properties as well as executives from virtually every segment of the industry. The owners, managers and many staff from the $14.3 billion Virtuoso Network were also in attendance.

There was a certain electricity in the air, with huge movie screens positioned throughout the space so everyone could get a close-up view of what was taking place on the stage.

As the music cued and the spotlights played across the stage, the event took off. My wife, Angela, and I were, as always, enjoying the show, with the content to come later in the week.

But that changed when it was announced that, unlike in previous years when all the awards would be handed out at an evening gala on the final night, it had been decided to give out the top production awards at the opening session.

There was a palpable buzz in the ballroom as major production awards were given out to industry giants like Protravel International, Travel Experts and Valerie Wilson Travel.

Then, a category appeared on the screens that was called Top Production by Advisor. We were nominated, but there were some larger, well-known agencies nominated, as well. Then our name was called, someone from the staff appeared at my side, and I was propelled toward the stage with Angela at my side.

It wasn't a very long walk, and I had no fears that Angela or I would trip on our way up. I remember having a big smile on my face, fully embracing the absurdity of the moment. It was a small and rare victory for a business model that can only be described as contrarian, not at all in keeping with the norms one might expect from a travel agency operation.

My wife spoke first, so I had a moment on stage to think about what I might say to an audience I would likely never again address.

As I thought about it, in the 30 seconds or so I had to contemplate, I figured I ought to tell them that our business was, perhaps, too badly behaved to deserve this award. We have not, I was thinking, followed the rules of good travel agency behavior. I thought I would point this truth out and make sure the audience understood that this was not a victory for us personally but was a small victory for the odd ducks out there who imagine a business differently, who do not think that a travel agency has to look like other travel agencies.

I thought about it, but I did not, of course, say anything like that when it was my time to speak.

Still, I was charged up by the idea that we could run up some nice production figures by taking a different path than many others.  

There was no time to properly address the segment of the audience that means the most to me: the young people, who against their parent's advice have chosen the travel agency business as their career. Imagine how many elders have spoken to these young people and told them what a career mistake they would be making if they entered a business that "the Internet is destroying."

So let me do it now, briefly.

Think outside of the travel box, which is stifling and several years old. It is getting musty. And it will, sooner rather than later, be discarded.

There are numerous directions you can go, wonderful travel paths to explore. Someone among you will open an Apple Store for travel; someone will sell travel advice and charge by the minute. Someone will sell the world's best islands, and someone will design in-home travel presentations. One of you will open a worldwide itinerary store, selling your finished product in beautifully bound books.

There will be continent specialists and an agency totally devoted to English-speaking nations. Some young person just starting out in our industry will represent the world's best 1,000-plus passenger ships, while others will handle ships smaller than that exclusively.

Someone will start an agency that harnesses current technology to answer the question "In my exact scenario, what is my single best air strategy?"

Someone just starting out in our industry will open an agency totally devoted to "the world's 20 safest destinations," while someone else will launch a firm based on "destinations everyone has told you to avoid".

Somewhere out there is a psychology major just starting out in travel who will design the ultimate app that matches the user's travel history, psychographic profile and demographic metrics with the perfect destination.

As for us, we've never set out to be rebels or contrarians. We just felt from the beginning that as former supplier-side folks, we wanted to design a new model. We thought that not because of any particular industry aspirations, but primarily because we thought it would be fun and something the consumer could embrace.

My few moments of dramatic irony as I walked up to the stage and waited to speak had to do with the fact that we are not a travel agency and never have been. We've never sold an airline ticket, and we've never been IATA. Our telephone numbers were always unlisted, and we do little if any advertising. We have five websites, all of which are ad-free and each of which manages to lose some amount of money each year. You have to pay us a fee to even be considered as a client, and you also have to fill out a rather detailed six-page questionnaire.

Our clients are from literally all over, and we have no geographic base. For 29 of our 30 years in business, we did not accept credit cards.

We never sell domestic anything, and most of our clients have travel agents. When someone tries to offer us a deposit, our staff is trained to graciously decline it, suggesting that there is "no urgency; let's think about it."

Our firm has no commissioned outside agents, and no one on our staff works on commission. Our staff chooses the hours they will work and takes a major role in running the company. I, personally, have absolutely no idea what commissions we earn on any product we sell, so I will not be biased in my recommendations. Only one employee knows our commission levels.

We rate the world's top 10 cruise lines, river boats, tour operators, etc., and those are the only suppliers we represent. We set the standards for what we sell. We never, ever, take booking orders from our clients. Everything is always open for discussion and re-evaluation.

If there is any lesson in all of this, it is that anyone, young or old, can invent or recalibrate an agency model that is both unique and appealing to a breed of traveler seeking new levels of human interaction and expertise.

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