The pandemic has made it difficult to safely hold in-person meetings, which the travel industry has thrived on in the past, but one hotel representative has found an innovative solution: Buy a custom Winnebago camper and drive it around the country, holding meetings for advisors at the properties he represents and sometimes even in advisors' driveways.
Jon Makhmaltchi, founder of J.MAK Hospitality, has found a number of ways to connect with travel advisors during the pandemic. He upped his social media usage and developed "J.MAsKs," face masks with his logo and catchphrases he uses, such as "Luvya!!!" and "Hooray!!!" Makhmaltchi sent the masks to advisors, who have in turn been posting selfies on social media, many documented on J.MAK's Instagram Stories.
But his latest effort, the Winnebago, is certainly his most ambitious.
J.MAK Hospitality receives a monthly retainer from the hotels he represents to put them in front of advisors; he describes himself as something of a "broker" between advisors and properties.
The idea of owning a recreational vehicle has always been attractive, Makhmaltchi said.
About 10 years ago, he represented Airstream 2 Go, which rents luxury Airstream trailers. Makhmaltchi took one to Virtuoso Week in Las Vegas, then journeyed on to Moab, Utah, with some travel advisors. It was "epic," he said, and "it left a mark on me."
In the midst of the pandemic, Makh-maltchi and his husband welcomed a daughter via a surrogate in Missouri. In considering how best to bring her home, Makhmaltchi revived his RV idea and tried to rent one. He was unable to get one in time, so they flew via private jet. But the RV idea stuck with him.
When they returned to upstate New York with their daughter, Makhmaltchi said, he recognized that the pandemic was going to last longer than many had previously believed.
"I thought, how am I going to keep [the business] alive and well?" he said. "How am I going to be able to show not only my hoteliers, but advisors, a safe and effective way to be friends and stay in touch?"
His solution? Get the RV.
Makhmaltchi's custom Winnebago is soon to be delivered. Once he picks it up, the first stop in what he has dubbed the "Happy Campers" tour will take place at Troutbeck, an 18th-century estate he represents in Amenia, N.Y.
There, he plans to park near one of the outdoor gathering spots Troutbeck has alongside a creek and host local travel advisors for a socially distanced visit around a fire pit.
Makhmaltchi is planning a number of forays to other properties he represents around the country, and along the way he's had many invitations from travel advisors to camp out in their driveways.
"It's just incredible how the response has been to something that I really thought was silly in the beginning," he said. "It's really exciting."