Friday, June 22, 2012

Flashback 1978 - It was the best of times, it was the simplest of times

 Retrospective - Part 1 of a 4 part series

When I first joined the travel industry in 1978, life was relatively simple.  I worked in an upscale travel agency in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee.  I had been working as a bookkeeper since I was 15, so I negotiated the whopping salary of $18,500 annually ($8.89/hr), a veritable fortune for a 21 year old.   I convinced Dave Viall, the owner, that I could learn the industry quickly.

Our office was a few blocks off of Lake Michigan in what would now be considered a very trendy shopping area in downtown Whitefish Bay.  Even with my amazing salary, I couldn’t even afford to buy a pair of shoes in the boutiques that lined the street near our agency.   I digress.
We were on the cutting edge.  Multi-line, rotary phones that you could put on hold and transfer calls between people.  Each agent had a Selectric typewriter.

Like any self-respecting agency today, we had a front office, a mid-office and a back office system.  And we were mobile (if you count our courier Jake who busily delivered tickets to our corporate clients in his trusty VW). 

Our front-office system consisted of Agnes, Cherie and Jill.  Together with our corporate in-plant agent, we produced $3 million in annual sales.

Agnes, who was older than God, headed up leisure travel.  I strongly suspect that if she did go to college, her degree was in geography, with a minor in psychology.  She had an amazing list of clients from the North Shore area.  She dressed impeccably every day and I wouldn’t be surprised if she came from money.    She knew the content of every high-end brochure on our brochure wall, probably because she went on fam trips regularly.  She had literally been everywhere.  She was a walking CRM system.  Agnes kept every detail of the client’s preferences on a set of cards, which she kept in a box. She knew every birthday and every anniversary and never missed sending her clients a card on their special day.  Although our office manager made her write everything down on res cards (likely because she was 70-something and we never knew how long she would be around), I’m quite sure that she kept every detail of the reservations in her head. 

Agnes knew when every deposit was due and never missed getting a final payment to the vendor. When it was time for her client to leave for their trip, she typed everything up on the brand new, state of the art IBM Selectric typewriter. She didn’t do a traditional invoice.  It was more like a travelogue.  She even typed her tickets.  (I’m sure her parents had her take typing when she was young, as she could type faster than we could write.)   She then added a personal note and arranged to meet her client to give them their travel documents.  When they returned, I’m quite sure that she visited them in their homes (bottle of wine and fresh flowers in hand, no doubt) to hear about their trip and to watch their slide show or see their pictures once they had been developed.  This likely occurred a week after their return, not only so they could get rested, but because film developing normally took at least a week.

We were actually an early adopter of automated booking and had a few ICOT terminals connected to United Airlines’ Reservations System, known as Apollo.  It reminded me of something from the Jetsons.  Agnes respectfully declined to have one of those “new fangled things” on her desk.  She opted to keep the baby blue Selectric.  It matched her eyes.

Cherie was the lead corporate agent.  She definitely knew her stuff and was completely adept at navigating the tariffs, which sat on a long counter outside my office.  She handled the agency’s leisure international business as well.  Her clients tended to need a bit more care and they definitely made more changes than the other agents.  She quite often would wait until the last minute to issue the tickets and type up the invoice, but since the fares rarely changed, that was not a problem.    She was our own personal “seat buster” and would call the airlines and hound them until they gave her the seats that she wanted.     

Source:  Milwaukee Journal, April 15, 1975
She would also scour the Sunday paper to see if there were any deals that we didn’t already know about through our airline reps that regularly visited our office.

(An airline rep visiting the office?  Suddenly I’m feeling a little like I am in the scene in Back to the Future where the car pulls up to the gas station and the attendant comes out and not only pumps the gas, but cleans the windshield and checks the air in the tires.)

By the way, get a load of these airfares for a family of 4!

About 23% of all tickets were paid by credit card, so we had to wait for payment for 30 days after the tickets were issued.  The agency owner, Dave, knew that corporate business was steadier and more predictable than leisure, so he was willing to float the receivables.

While the agency had the brand new Apollo system, Agnes and Cherie still did a lot of business over the phone with the travel suppliers.  The long distance bill was outrageous.  I know that I am dating myself, but did I mention that there was no such thing as a toll-free number in 1978?

Jill was the office manager and although she was a “super agent”, producing well over $1m in air ticket sales alone, I guess you would say she was also the “mid-office” as we know it today.  She was a chain smoker (Virginia Slim Lights) and she typed faster than anyone I ever knew.  She was also the first person that I ever saw wearing a phone headset, as it allowed her maximum speed. 

Jill was the quality control system (Agnes, did you remember to……?  Cherie, don’t forget to……).   Jill was also the expert on writing tickets, which in those days required manual construction of the fare ladder and validating the ticket with a metal plate.  I wonder how many agents today would even know how to hand write a ticket.

The ticket printer came much later.  When we wanted to print an itinerary, everyone had to stop printing tickets.  Jill would then switch out the ticket stock for invoice stock, each of which had the little holes on the sides to fit into the mechanism on the Texas Instruments printer.  The same process would happen in reverse when it was time to print tickets again.  By the time automated boarding passes came out, we had a second printer, but still had to use it for both invoices and boarding passes.

We even installed a satellite ticket printer in one of our corporate client’s offices.  Blazing a trail, but quickly putting Jake out on the street, out of a job.

I was the “back office” system.  In those days, the tools of my trade were an adding machine with tape for the ATC Report (now known as ARC), special hand cleaner to use on Tuesday’s to get the red carbon off of my hands from handling the tickets when I prepared the report and a Safeguard double entry check writing system with an integrated double entry ledger.  Each client had a ledger card that fit on the Safeguard board when I needed to write a check or put together the client’s statement.  I shared the IBM Selectric with Agnes, so I had to come in once a month on Saturdays to type client statements. 

I left the agency nearly two years after I got there, to work for a company that had developed an automated accounting system on a mini-computer.  I had never seen a computer (other than the Apollo terminal in the agency), so in January of 1980, I was off to my next adventure!

Stay tuned for the changes that came about in the industry once we applied computer power to the accounting process and corporate reporting was born.

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