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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.