ST. LOUIS -- Maritz Travel books itineraries for thousands of business travelers every year. However, any of them would be hard-pressed to match the battle-hardened status of an army of travelers employed by Maritz.

They are travel directors, employees who provide on-site customer service for corporate meetings and incentive trips.

Officially, travel directors are employed by Maritz's group travel division, which provides staff for 1,100 to 1,300 events per year, accounting for approximately $520 million in annual sales volume, said Tim Cole, vice president of operations for the travel director program.

Cole said many travel management companies employ travel director staffs, but he said he believes Maritz's is unique because of its sheer size.

Currently, Maritz employs 140 full-time travel directors and 135 part-timers. Most of the full-timers are based in St. Louis but live out of a suitcase.

"Our full-timers travel between 240 and 255 days per year," said Cole.

Part-time travel directors are scattered throughout the country and work a more flexible schedule.

Ann Smith, director of program operations, said travel directors generally arrive at a destination two to seven days before a meeting or incentive trip. When the meeting or trip ends, full-time travel directors fly home, report to the home office and turn in billing information. Within a few days, they'll likely be hitting the road again.

Apparently, a full-time travel director won't be investing in season tickets for the St. Louis Cardinals or spending much time grocery shopping. Who is doing this kind of work? The typical full-timer, said Cole, is college-educated, single, 26 years old and does not necessarily have a background in travel management.

"A lot of travel directors live with their parents or live modestly," added Cole. The typical part-timer is 50 to 55 years old with job experience in the travel industry -- perhaps with airlines, cruise lines and destination management companies, said Cole.

The youthfulness of the full-time travel director makes sense: Professionals looking to settle down and start a family wouldn't want to live in hotels 250 days per year. However, recent college graduates who want the opportunity to see the world might find the position of full-time travel director appealing, said Cole. He should know. He was hired as a Maritz travel director 21 years ago at age 21.

Of course, working as a travel director is a far cry from vacationing at Club Med. There's considerable pressure involved in the job, Cole said.

"People know Maritz from the travel staff they encounter on site," he said. "Clients have traveled with us for years. We must meet certain service levels and expectations."

Among the tasks that travel directors perform, Cole said, are the basics like managing hotel room blocks, greetings at the airport, overseeing banquet service, arranging transportation, organizing tours, packaging meetings materials and ensuring that clients' expenditures don't exceed their budgets.

However, travel directors are regularly asked to go the extra mile, said Cole -- handling attendees' flight changes or re-stuffing meeting packets at the last minute, for example.

Last year, during an incentive trip in Egypt, a client asked travel directors to organize an evacuation and complete itinerary change after the U.S. government issued a travel warning for that region when the U.S.S. Cole was bombed in Yemen.

"It's their job to head off problems and come up with other options," said Cole. "They're expected to do everything and anything on site that's legal and ethical."

As no one will be looking over their shoulders when on the road, travel directors are expected to have specific "intangible qualities," said Cole.

"We look for people who show leadership, are decision-makers and are creative problem solvers," said Cole. "Those are difficult qualities to ascertain in a 90-minute interview."

Maritz usually has to sift through about 2,500 to 3,000 resumes per year, said Cole. From that pool, Maritz must hire between 40 and 55 full-timers per year.

The high turnover rate, not surprisingly, is attributed to the stress of constantly traveling. A full-time travel director usually stays on the job an average of three years, said Cole, who added that the average part-timer has nine years' experience at Maritz.

"Sometimes, they're gone for stretches of 45 days at a time without coming back to St. Louis," said Cole. "They do burn out over a period of time."

Cole said about 45% of full-time travel directors eventually work for Maritz in another capacity, especially in marketing-related positions.

Full-timers usually start at a salary of $22,500, said Cole. Their uniforms, accommodations, dry cleaning and meals are paid for by Maritz. Part-timers are paid on a per diem basis, said Cole. Their experience level is taken into account in determining their wages. New full-time hires are required to attend a four-week classroom training session, said Smith.

Activities include role playing, in which someone acts as a demanding customer, and the trainee is asked to respond as he or she would on the road. Trainees also learn how to manage room blocks and expenditures on a laptop.

Full-time: Fun for the young

ST. LOUIS -- After six years of undergraduate and graduate studies at Central Missouri State University, Shannon Schneider was ready for something different and exciting.

One day, a friend who worked as a full-time travel director at Maritz Travel gave her a call and asked her to join her.

"She said, 'I'm in Paris on my balcony,' " recalled Schneider, 28. "It sounded like fun."

Schneider pursued it, and today, after two-plus years on the job, her initial assessment was right. It's been fun.

"Best travel I've ever had," she said.

Her job has taken her to memorable venues like the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and exotic locations like game camp reserves in Tanzania and Kenya. It's not all glamorous though. Clients who go on expensive corporate incentive trips expect a high level of customer service.

"In Sydney, a group asked us if we could get them additional gymnastics tickets," said Schneider. "We had to figure out how to do that."

Gymnastics is one of the most popular sports in the Summer Olympics. Tickets aren't easy to come by at the last minute. But Schneider and fellow travel directors came through.

"This job teaches you that you can make things happen," she said. "You never know until you ask."

In Africa, some attendees wanted to call home and touch base with loved ones. However, Schneider said some area codes in the U.S. couldn't be reached from the hotel in which they were staying.

"We had to call people in area codes that worked and have them relay messages," she said. "We often have to come up with creative solutions. Some requests that we get are outrageous and time-consuming," Schneider added. "But we always have a lot of fun."

Schneider relishes the camaraderie among travel directors. They arrive at a destination a few days in advance in order to prepare for the task at hand, but the travel directors also have some time to see the sights.

"We're all in this together," said Schneider. "You meet great friends in this job. A friend of mine back home got sick of me telling all the stories. She decided she wanted to have fun, too."

Despite the great times, Schneider envisions that she'll stop working as a travel director soon. It's hard to have a personal life when you're on the road all the time.

Schneider likes working at Maritz, though, and said she may stay with the company in another capacity.

"I'm getting to the point where I can go into some of the aspects in planning these trips."

Director finds her profession 'hardest job I've ever loved'

ST. LOUIS -- During a port stop on a cruise vacation, Diane Schwarz spotted Maritz travel directors conducting a corporate incentive program in Curacao.

She approached the Maritz employees and asked them questions about their profession. When she arrived home, Schwarz, who is coincidentally from St. Louis, applied for a part-time job.

She was hired. That was 24 years ago. What keeps her interested in remaining a travel director?

"I always say that there are no two destinations alike, no two assignments alike and no two clients alike," Schwarz said. "Every job, every program is a new opportunity. I tell people it's the hardest job I've ever loved."

When Schwarz first started, she had daughters in the seventh and eighth grades and was on the road about 14 days out of each month.

"You have to have the gypsy in your soul and help from your family to do the job successfully," she said.

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