David Cogswell | December 12, 2015 7:00 AM ET
USTOA Chicago: The Power of Human Synergy
After spending a few days at the annual conference of the U.S. Tour Operators Association it takes some time for the buzzing to stop. Attending that conference is like immersing yourself in high-energy soup. It takes over your existence for a few days, charges you and becomes your world. When you step out of the field again, it leaves a void, and it takes a while to readjust to normal life.
How can one describe what happens at that conference? There is a phenomenon I observe with conferences that is fascinating and probably the central reason for the existence of conferences. It is the compounding of human energy and consciousness that takes place when you gather large numbers of people together with a common focus.
A conference can unleash an enormous natural force from the energy released by joining human beings together and focusing their energies on shared purposes. There is a kind of chemistry that takes place through combining different kinds of human energy that is analogous to the kind of transformative reactions we see in chemical changes.
Combining the elemental gases of hydrogen and oxygen produces water, a liquid that has few properties of either of the gases that formed it. How much more complex are human beings? How much greater results might come about through combining human forces?
It is the combining of human energies and intelligence that has produced the great wonders of human creation such as skyscrapers, bridges and giant dams, to name a few things. The same dynamic works wonders on many other levels of life that are not quite so obvious as the creation of a skyscraper, but may ultimately be even more significant in terms of their effect on human destiny.
The possibilities of combining human energies are endless, and the USTOA Annual Conference and Marketplace is one field of activity where that dynamic can be observed in action. The conference brings together a rich collection of travel industry movers and shakers and creates avenues and situations through which their energies can be combined.
The core of the attendance at the conference is the active member tour operators. They are the ones the association was created by and for, the U.S. tour operators for whom the association was named. They tend to be the top tour operators in the country. They are certainly among the most financially solid. They have to post a million dollar bond with the association just to join.
Each active member tour operator must have the financial wherewithal to put aside a million dollars for the association to hold just to demonstrate their reliability. Being able to do that is in itself an almost incomparable credential.
One of the strongest drawing cards of the USTOA conference is that the active members are represented at the conference by some of their top people. For most of the companies it is their owners, presidents, chairmen, CEOs and VPs who represent them at the conference.
For the associate members, it is the possibility of gaining access to the top decision makers of the tour operators that induces them to join the association in the first place and attend the annual conference.
It has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of many that targeting the USTOA is one of the most effective ways to penetrate the U.S. travel industry. If you represent a destination that wants to gain the attention of the American traveling public, one of the most effective ways to channel your promotional resources is to focus on getting to know and earning the trust of the USTOA active members.
If you win them over you are on your way. They are at the center of it all. Through them you connect to the national network of travel agents and the travel agents’ reach extends into the obscure corners of the traveling public.
Tour operators are also the center of the supplier network. They are central to the businesses of airlines, hotels, destinations, attractions and every other aspect of the travel industry.
The tour operators pull together the basic elements and combine them into comprehensible and workable tour packages and itineraries. They don’t just passively patch things together. They combine the pieces in meaningful ways and they usually provide a framework that creates a transcendent meaning beyond the mere combining of disparate elements, more than just a string of places and activities.
The attending population of the USTOA conference is a richly diverse group of people from all over the world, people of all nationalities, gender identities, cultures, interests, religions, political orientations, etc.. And yet despite all those differences there is little dissension, little tension among different people with different interests. The focus is on the common interests and values.
Those common interests center around travel, including travel as business, but also travel for itself and for the other benefits it brings to the world. There is a feeling that the attendees believe in travel not only because it provides them a livelihood, but because it exerts a positive influence on the world.
Not just tolerance, but celebration of differences and diversity is part of the core shared beliefs of the USTOA community. This year the celebration of diversity was accentuated by the ushering in of the association’s first female chair, Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette.
With the rise of the first woman to the position of chairman, USTOA has struck its blow against the suppression of women. And after Paula Twidale serves her two-year term, she will be followed in the chairmanship by another woman, Dana Santucci, vice president of development for EF Education First.
Diversity is at the core of synergy. The word synergy was once only used by chemists, but it was brought into the mainstream by Buckminstrer Fuller. Synergy means combinations that produce more than the sum of their parts. Or behavior of whole systems not predicted by the behavior of their constituent parts.
Fuller showed remarkable examples of synergy. One of Fuller’s favorite examples was the creation of Chrome Nickel Steel, an alloy of chromium, nickel and iron that somehow showed a greater strength than any of its composite metals by a factor of four.
That is synergy. It is the magic of chemical change and there is a similar magic in human interaction. Synergy can happen with people. And it happens a great deal at a forum like the USTOA conference.
Another way the association is evolving is that tour operators are ever more concerned with caring for the world they live in.
Increasingly, tour operators seem to be turning their attentions to higher missions than just making money. This reflects the evolution of the culture at large in which they operate. The general population is increasingly interested in sustainability, environmental stewardship, peace, and helping to make the world work.
Tour operators are increasingly taking responsibility for trying make the world a better place. That was certainly strikingly obvious at this year’s conference in Chicago. More than ever, it seems, the keynote presentations dealt with sustainability, philanthropy, environmental protection and world peace, which no one wants more than tour operators, who have everything to lose and nothing to gain by war.
At the opening session, when the first woman chairman was introduced, and when Doc Hendley, a southern American who founded Wine into Water spoke to the opening session, there were many who were brought to tears more than once.
This does not seem typical of a business conference. In the business world we have trained ourselves to focus strictly on matters of profit and loss, as if it we really believe money is the only thing that is real or matters. But increasingly, in the travel industry, that is clearly not the case. It’s no longer enough to make money. To be a respectable company in the travel industry today you have to do your part to make the world a better place.
The contacts made, the relationships deepened, the deals forged and the plans made at this conference will do that, each in its own way. I am confident of that.
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