Industry colleagues and friends are mourning the loss of Jim Smith, who died this week at the age of 65.

Jim Smith represented Special Needs Group at Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld show in Florida.
Jim Smith represented Special Needs Group at Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld show in Florida.

A longtime industry figure whose passions were family and friends, the travel industry and music, Smith rose to prominence at an early age as president of GEM, a large national travel agency consortium that was to become an early building block of what has today grown into Internova, the largest travel agency group.

Prior to taking the reins of GEM at age 32, he had been sales director for National Car Rental.

Smith most recently worked as a consultant. Special Needs Group (SNG) had been a client since 2011.

"He really had a passion for accessibility," said Andrew Garnett, president and CEO of SNG. "They say, 'enjoy what you do and you'll never work a day in your life.' He would work really hard, but he would enjoy getting the message across [about the importance of] making travel accessible for folks. So many people had just assumed that they couldn't go. By educating the industry, we were able to get the word out."

Jim Smith, right, with Andrew Garnett, president and CEO of Special Needs Group
Jim Smith, right, with Andrew Garnett, president and CEO of Special Needs Group

Joe Jiffo, vice president of business development for the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel, first met Smith during his GEM days. Jiffo was working for Celebrity Cruises at the time, based in Miami.

GEM's headquarters, in West Islip, N.Y., happened to be next door to the hospital where Jiffo was born, and when he went to the GEM offices to meet Smith, the two hit it off immediately.

GEM was the biggest consortium at the time, Jiffo recalled, and Smith made it a point to treat members and suppliers well. He was invited to join an event Smith had been closely associated with since the early 1990s: the Boondoggle.

The Boondoggle was an annual golf trip. "Smitty" was "The Chair" of the event. He would send emails in anticipation of the Boondoggle months in advance, Jiffo recalled.

Smith left GEM in 1998 in a dispute over equity -- owner Al Minkoff wouldn't give him any -- and such was his sway within the organization that five senior executives walked out with him to form a consultancy called Market Share.

When GEM was acquired just six weeks later by Travel Associates Network, known by its initials TAN, Smith tweaked his former organization by launching a competitor 10 days later: the Focused Unified National Travel Agency Network, or Funtan.

Market Share only lasted six months, after which Smith became vice president of sales and travel industry marketing for Delta Vacations. Two years later, he moved to CLIA as its director of marketing.

"He was very smart," Bob Sharak, president of the consulting firm Bob Sharak & Associates, recalled. At the time, Sharak was executive vice president of marketing and trade relations at CLIA, and he said Smith "was very, very well connected with all the different players in the travel industry, which is of great value. He was like a pitbull -- there was never an issue of a project or an assignment that wasn't completed. He had all those great attributes for an employee, but he was also just an eccentric person, quirky. A very free spirit."

Sharak joined the Boondoggle group several years ago, describing it as four days of "golfing, gabbing, maybe imbibing in a few beverages and just having fun." He said the group members became like brothers.

After working at CLIA, Smith began consulting, including for Auto Europe for 14 years.

He remained a steady presence in the industry, frequently attending and presenting at events. He helped Sharak organize and run CLIA's Cruise360 show.

Industry consultant Mary Pat Sullivan called Smith "a constant in my 30-plus-year travel industry career.

"Through his varied leadership roles, he was always an incredibly staunch advocate for the travel advisor community," she said. "He understood the complexities and challenges and was always the first to support the channel with suppliers, associations, whoever would listen. He had the most incredible gift of empathy and always put family and health first in every conversation. We lost a champion."

In addition to his work in the travel industry, Smith was heavily involved in the music industry, working with bands like Aerosmith and Van Halen and at venues ranging from New York's Roseland Ballroom to Central Park.

Shawn Tubman, vice president of strategic partnerships for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, called Smith's career "very impressive" but added that what he was most proud of were his sons, Trevor and Ethan, and his wife, Angela.

"I hope he would say his two other loves were rock music and his Boondoggle golf group," Tubman said. "We will all miss him so, but [I am] honored to have been very close friends."

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