Almost South of the Border

My final destination was Tucson but I booked my flight to Phoenix, nearly 120 miles from the target city. The decision was a selfish one influenced by the almost two hour drive from my home to Newark airport. Adding in a 2 hour prior check in and a 5 hour flight, it was at a total of nine hours from departure to arrival. More than a long enough day without enduring a layover and a connecting flight. Unfortunately, it inconvenienced my intended hosts who would act as my taxi service from the airport to their home. I was counting on their absolute joy at seeing me to distract them from their four hour roundtrip pick up service. When I arrived into the modern airport of Phoenix, I was greeted by my own personal welcoming committee, my mom and her husband, both whom I hadn’t seen for 6 years. After hugs and chatter about my trip we got into their car and started the journey south to Tucson, more specifically Sahuarita. It was mostly highway driving and except for the stray cacti here and there and the pueblo influenced artwork decorating the overpasses we might have been travelling along any major Interstate. Along the way we passed malls that could be in “Anywhere, USA”. Each overly familiar: the big home repair supply store, the mega toy store, the store with unlimited towels, candles and soaps and of course the 24 hour super store with lots of trailers overnighting in the parking lot. There seemed to be little difference between this new destination and driving down the main drag in our local area. Perhaps because I thought Arizona would be very different from home it was at that point I mourned the homogenization of America. We arrived at their Southwestern style home late in the evening and I settled in quickly. I was eager for some local flavor and to see what else the area had to offer. As a visitor everything was new to me, each scenic vista, each little town and every tourist shop. As hosts, my folks needed to decide whether they were willing to play tour guide, re-visiting places for my benefit that they undoubtedly had visited multiple times. Tubac was suggested as a place I might enjoy and I was interested but didn’t want them to make the trip solely for my benefit.  Fortunately they said “yes” but I do suspect that it had something to do with the small town’s proximity to their favorite Mexican restaurant.  Tubac is located in the Santa Cruz Valley, not far from the Mexican border. As we travelled south, we began to see an increase in the number of Mexico license plates and the Mexican influence in street names and decorative road signs. It was founded in 1752 and currently is the fastest growing artist colony in the state with a current population that is in the neighborhood of 2000 locals. That number swells on a daily basis as visitors arrive seeking locally produced gifts and home décor that range from hokey to upscale and most with a southwestern flavor. It’s a quaint and kitschy area that boasts such amenities as a “husband drop off” spot for wives who wish to shop uninterrupted. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of some of the items but not a single “big box” or chain store was to be seen in the area. Since size definitely matters I was careful to choose items that would fit into a carryon bag yet would be appreciated by the recipient. I walked through aisles of colorful ceramic cacti, rusted metal warthogs (who doesn’t need one of those!) and Kokopeli figures by the hundreds. In other words, items that wouldn’t be found in any of those big retailer’s stores. These handicrafts reflected the local population because they were handmade by the local population.  My final selections included some very attractive copper bracelets and for one owl lover in the office, two identical egg shaped wood inlaid owls, one smaller than the other. It was definitely a successful shopping foray. As we left Tubac the suggestion was made to stop for a late lunch at a local restaurant called Wisdoms. Despite the name, I was assured that they served the most authentic Mexican food without having to cross the border. I began to see what thickened the plot. This restaurant was a favorite of my hosts and they were eager to share it. I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of Mexican food but lunch was wonderful and accompanied by a serenade from 2 strolling guitarists. Of course if you judge a roadside restaurant by their dessert, then this place definitely got 2 thumbs up for both selection and portion size. We hadn’t officially entered Mexico but were still required to pass through Border Control. I was eager for the experience, less because I had nothing or no one to hide and more because of the working dogs that accompanied most of the guards. The always handsome Belgian Malinois dogs were highly trained to alert their handler to the presence of drugs and weapons. It gives me great comfort to know that our borders are protected by hardworking officers who work for milk-bones.  My concern for the canine cops working in the heat was assuaged with the assurance that they are rotated every 15 minutes. I don’t believe that the uniformed men and women enjoyed the same perques. Perhaps the dogs have better union representation. The guard waved and smiled when he saw me taking his photo. From my perspective he was just the officer holding the leash of a good looking dog. It was a good day and a great introduction to the local culture and best of all not a single mall was entered during the taking of this vacation.  If you’d like to see a few examples of the local crafts please visit:

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30 Years and Counting!

I’ve just gotten home from the celebration of our 30th Anniversary party commemorating the opening of Embassy Travel in 1985 and I’m tired. It’s a good kind of tired. Sure, there was a lot of planning, shopping and work that culminated in today’s celebration but it was worth it. The party was shared with longtime friends of Embassy Travel and the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce who held a Ribbon Cutting ceremony to honor our milestone. A guest at the event commented that I must have seen a lot of changes through the years and I would call that a bit of an understatement. I first became a Travel Agent in 1983. Ronald Reagan was President, major carriers such as TWA, Eastern Airlines, National Airlines and Pan Am filled the skies.  There was no internet, heck, there were barely computers. Every bit of research, every reservation was done by phone and with the help of books such as the OAG – the Official Airline Guide. The rather large tome arrived in the mail weekly and contained the information for every flight available to everywhere. Airline tickets were written by hand and needed to be presented at the airport in order to board a flight. If a client needed a hotel, we looked in another book, the Official Hotel Guide, and called to make the reservations and then typed up a voucher to present at the hotel front desk. In 1985 with hardly any mileage on my luggage I was approached by a tough-to-please client who informed me that he was interested in opening a travel agency and asked if I would consider working with him. Perhaps it was youth, more likely ignorance, but I said “yes”. However, I boldly told him that I would prefer to be his business partner. For reasons I still don’t understand, he said “yes”. We opened on July 13, 1985 and by the end of 1987, I was flying solo. I wish someone had advised me to fasten my seatbelt and put my tray in an upright position to prepare for the sometimes bumpy journey ahead.

At that time, deregulation was 7 years old and I won’t bore you with the conditions that led to the government taking action in passing those changes in 1978. The desired end result of increased competition between airlines and accessible rates for the masses was successful at lowering fares and offering more route options but in the long run was also successful at dramatically thinning the herd. Where once there were hundreds of airlines to choose from, we now have a double digit roster of domestic choices and I bet you can barely name one carrier other than Jet Blue. At the same time of deregulation, we were transitioning into the computer age.  Suddenly, we no longer needed to hand write airline tickets. In a futuristic shift reminiscent of the Jetsons, tickets were now printed by machine, complete with Boarding Passes attached. I needed to do little else than staple the coupons together, place them in a ticket jacket with a printed itinerary and wish my clients a good trip. The automation gave me much more control over constructing airfares without needing to rely upon the ability of the airline representative on the phone.  I could easily search and compare multiple airlines all from a single source, not to mention the time I saved by not waiting on hold (People’s Express, I’m talking to you!) to inquire about fares or make reservations. The next revolution in civilized travel soon rolled in and its name was Travelpro. Created for Stewardesses, now called Flight Attendants, by a former Northwest Airlines pilot for those in the industry, it was as if the wheel itself had been reinvented instead of just being placed on the bottoms of suitcases. It soon became the go to bag and also quickly eliminated, in its entirety, the need for porters and the accompanying tips to those porters. Of course now we have to weigh, measure and count our luggage to avoid the new, but here-to-stay luggage fees. People’s Express continued to shake up the market and changed flying comfortably forever. Suddenly, “luxury” became a dirty word. With their ultra-low fares came ultra-low service. Thanks again People’s Express, I wish I could say I miss you but I’d be lying. I have been part of an industry that reunites families, celebrates weddings and transports people to start new lives and have taken great joy in each milestone. Those joyous moments only served to magnify the horror of watching our industry used as a weapon against our very own citizens. Out of each terrible action a new security measure was put in place that continue as a reminder, even now, each time we enter an airport or board a cruise ship. How long will it be before we see metal detectors at train stations? With fear on the rise and travel on the decline, airlines sought ways to control costs. In a one two punch most major carriers eliminated the commission they paid to Travel Agents for processing their reservations and generating their tickets, both hardcopy and electronic. Travel Agents adjusted by either discontinuing the sale of tickets or charging a small fee to cover the costs of licensing, insurance, computer fees and our time. Still, many people continue to book on line without realizing that they’re booking with “OTAs”, Online Travel Agents! The Travel Agent part here is most notable because I am constantly asked if there’s a future for Travel Agents. Every time you book with Cheap or Expedia or Travelocity you are booking with Travel Agents. They just happen to be located in the Midwest and accessible only by phone or email. During my tenure in the industry I have seen the Berlin Wall fall, travel to the Czech Republic resume, followed by Viet Nam and now Cuba. I have been privileged to book honeymoon trips for young newlyweds and have watched clients literally grow up, marry, start their own families and then take their children to Disney World. I have seen families divided by divorce, suffer through illnesses and changed by death. I’m often asked if there’s a future for travel agents. Well, I sure hope so. I like to think that I help make travel planning easier and “funner” (my word!) and encourage intrepid travelers to try new places, new foods and new experiences. What does the future hold? I’m convinced that only Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic and now Virgin Galactic knows.  My personal wish is for space travel and I hope to see the day when I can book a honeymoon that actually is on the moon or a destination wedding undersea. Sir Branson has already got the space travel ready to launch, now we just need a premium hotel chain to commit to a new lunar resort. Please call me when you’re ready to go and let’s get started on the next 30 years