Michelle Morgan, the president of Signature Travel Network who died on Sept. 17, was remembered as both a numbers person and a people person, traits that powered her extraordinary life and career.
Agents, suppliers and executives from other co-ops and consortia expressed their admiration and love for Morgan last week as well as their pain over losing her.
Perhaps her greatest talent, said those who knew her, was her ability to motivate people to achieve goals they might never have dreamed of without her help.
“She was an inspiration,” said Eric Maryanov, president of All-Travel, a Signature agency, and the consortium’s treasurer.
Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade support and services at Royal Caribbean International, met Morgan on Freed’s first day at work in the travel industry. Though Morgan was just a few years older, Freed recalled thinking, “Wow! I want to be like her.”
“What I really learned from Michelle was her view that if you help others succeed, you will succeed,” Freed said.
Morgan happened into travel when, as a single mother with two children, she found a temp job as a secretary at Ask Mr. Foster.
“She proved herself so well that they hired her for the marketing department, and she just grew from there,” Maryanov recounted. “She had a fabulous intuition for business.”
Morgan later became a marketing executive at Carlson Travel Network and, in 1991, was named executive director of a then-miniscule Signature.
“She grew her little California co-op from $30 million in agency sales to over $5 billion in her 22 years of service,” Alex Sharpe, Signature’s COO, wrote in a letter to members. He said the way she “lifted up small-agency owners and allowed them to battle with the big guys is legendary.”
A perfect example of Morgan’s business acumen was her ability to understand technology and help her members reap the benefits of it, said Lee Rosen, president of AttractionSuite.
“She wasn’t about getting the cheapest deal on something agents couldn’t understand,” Rosen said. “She was about understanding, applying and really getting the benefit to their members.”
Bryan Liebman, president and CEO of Frosch, recalled her strength of character: “What was most impressive for me was her humility. It was never about her. It was always about her members. Her values were uncompromising.”
After 9/11, Morgan insisted on going ahead with the Signature owners’ meeting scheduled to take place 10 days later. Most groups were canceling meetings, but she revamped the gathering and went forward. “It was one of the best programs anyone could have had,” Maryanov recalled.
And she had a knack for numbers, Maryanov said, recalling that at board meetings, she knew not just Signature’s financials but also the sales of preferred suppliers.
Morgan also showed her mettle as a fighter in the way she dealt with illness — first breast cancer, then leukemia. Maryanov said she died of complications from a bone-marrow transplant that was part of her leukemia treatment.
“I don’t know a stronger person or someone that persevered through all types of adversity the way Michelle has,” Sharpe wrote in his letter.
Maryanov said Morgan was devoted to her two daughters, Alisa and Deirdre, and her four grandchildren: Edward, Jack, Hana and Bing. She spent as much time with them as possible, saying she was going into “Mimi-mode,” a reference to the name her grandchildren called her.
Throughout her career, Morgan was cited with scores of industry honors.
She was named one of Forbes’ “25 Most Influential Women in Travel.”
Celebrity Cruises named her godmother to the Celebrity Silhouette in 2011.
She was inducted into CLIA’s Hall of Fame.
Travel Weekly awarded Morgan its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.
Longtime competitors and associates also were quick to praise Morgan.
Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, said, “Michelle was good for our industry on many levels, including being a tremendous advocate for the members within her network as well as travel advisers in general.”
Barry Liben, CEO of Travel Leaders Group, called her “one of our industry’s giants,” adding that “the travel agency community has lost a great and visionary leader in her passing.”
Jack Mannix, chairman of The Travel Institute, said that thanks to Morgan, Signature members wielded some of the most advanced technology tools in the business.
But, like most of those who knew her, Mannix’s final words of tribute were praise for her genuine caring for people.
Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.