Tag Archives: Travel Agents

Our Asian Adventure Aboard the Crystal Symphony Continues…

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Guest blogger Robyn Bushong sets sail for Xiaman.

Today is Palm Sunday, April 13th. Hard to believe Cynthia, my travel buddy, and I have been “home” on the Crystal Symphony now for three days.

We sailed from Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor late Thursday, evening, April 10th and had a welcome sea day on the 11th, followed by a whirlwind visit to Xiamen yesterday. When we first boarded—after our 3+ days of travel and non-stop marathon sightseeing tour of Hong Kong—we were welcomed like family and that’s exactly how we felt. Our embarkation was efficient, taking all of five minutes. In our beautiful stateroom on the Penthouse Deck (Deck 10), we unpacked, met our Austrian butler, Rainer, and our cabin stewardess Monika. After a quick tour of the ship, we enjoyed a very light dinner and were early to bed.

(Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

Our home away from home. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The first day of boarding, I couldn’t wait to get up to the Lido Café and sit in my favorite “spot,” a window table for two, where my dear friend Dorothy and I had sat for breakfast every day on our 13-day Trans Pacific cruise in December 2012. How nice that three of the dining room staff remembered us! Keeping with the routine from previous cruise, it was up to the gym and a good work out. What a nice surprise that Brian, the fitness director and spin instructor, remembered me, too. Friday was a sea day and everyone seemed glad to leave behind the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and just relax. And what a superb place to relax—every amenity is at your fingertips. The service is superb but unobtrusive. The staff prides themselves on making you feel as if you are the ONLY guest onboard. It’s hard to describe: atmosphere is casual but classy. The food, in all venues, is exceptionally good with great variety and selections. Housekeeping-– some of the very best you could ever expect to find anywhere.

I think one of the best ways to describe the relaxed ambience on this gorgeous sunny, breezy day was to watch the guests stretched out on lounge chairs, their favorite beverage at their side, book in their hand and they’re half asleep and half reading. All the while listening to a great sextet at the pool playing Santana-style music.

Saturday we docked in Xiamen. Also known as the “Pearl on the Sea”, Xiamen is a gorgeous tropical seaport that is also the second largest city in China with a population of 3 ½ million. Other than Victoria, BC, I don’t recall EVER seeing so many tree-lined esplanades, a kaleidoscope of color at every corner and a park every 500 meters. Unbelievably beautiful! My observation of sanity with traffic and pedestrians in Hong Kong was just the opposite here. The traffic on this Saturday morning was beyond indescribable. No sooner had we boarded our motor coach for a 4-hour tour, and we knew we were in for a wild ride. Our driver was fearless. Everyone jaywalked; pedestrians competed with giant buses for the right of way and bedlam ensued.

A delightful young lady, a graduate of Xiamen University, conducted our tour. We’d read in our daily bulletin that our guides would be university students with limited English. This young lady, whose English name was “Theona,” gave 110% to making our tour interesting. The problem was that with thousands and thousands and THOUSANDS of visitors at our first stop—The South Putuo Temple—that we just had to observe, as it was impossible to hear. I don’t ever remember there being so many people in one place as at this temple. (It’s interesting to note that South Putuo, or Nanputuo, is a very famous Buddhist temple founded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907.) Of the many beautiful temples in Xiamen, this is by far the most famous. It is so named because it is south of the Buddhist holy site Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province.

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(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Afterward, we visited the Overseas Chinese Museum. This 3-level museum, filled with over 15,000 artifacts, highlights the history and happenings of Chinese who went abroad to work and live. One of the most interesting accounts is of those Chinese immigrants who made a major contribution to the US’s Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800s. (These immigrants worked long hours in severe conditions for minimal pay to help build the tracks across 1,800 miles of arid plains and deserts and the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.) Only suggestion: it would have been so helpful to English-speaking visitors to have had access to a brochure in English, since several of the major exhibits related to these immigrants’ lives in both the USA and Canada. Our tour concluded with a tea-tasting ceremony of five different varieties for our group of 34 at a government-run teahouse. Once back on board, our busy day in Xiamen concluded with a concert in the Galaxy Lounge by internationally acclaimed pianist, Tian Jiang. Outstanding.

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The next day was foggy and extremely windy. In fact, the promenade deck doors were blocked for exiting outside because of the wind.  A plethora of cultural enrichment opportunities, ranging from a hands-on cooking demonstration by a guest chef in the Starlite lounge, to a fitness Boot Camp, to “Movie Editing Made Easy” where you can learn “iMovie Basics Part 1” on your iPad, highlighted the ship’s activities options. Today’s lecture by World Affairs Lecturer, Sir James Hodge discussing “China Today; the Giant Awakens” was mesmerizing.” Highlights of his talk: “China can now produce more in two weeks than it used to produce in a year.” Currently 18 million Chinese belong to the Communist Party, with 20 million wanting to join each year. Pork is the preferred meat. There are over 600,000 different villages in the country, 55 recognized ethnic minorities within 110 million inhabitants and 300 local dialects!” And that’s just the beginning of what I learned in an hour.

Guest chef demonstration.  (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Guest chef demonstration. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Tonight, we look forward to dinner at Prego (the popular Italian specialty dining venue) with our new friends we met yesterday from Dallas. Tomorrow, we dock in Shanghai, to enjoy three days/two nights of sightseeing and culture.  Our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Symphony continues…

Even Bishops Do It.

Salisbury, England.

Salisbury, England.

Ibn Battuta, a 14th century Moroccan explorer, wrote, “Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” Considered one of the greatest travelers of all time, accounts of his journeys were published in the Rihla.

I'd like to follow in his footsteps.

I’d like to follow in his footsteps.

Two weeks ago while roaming around online looking for some spiritual inspiration, I came across Huffington Post’s live Lenten blog. I wasn’t looking for any religious instruction but what I discovered was an inspiring, travel related, surprise.

If you’re unfamiliar with Lent, it’s the 40 days of observance, beginning with Ash Wednesday, leading up to Easter, and probably the most significant and spiritual season for Christians. It’s a time of repentance and fasting. In the self-denial department you can go big or small but chocolate, desserts, smoking, dieting, cursing—these are usually the big ones on the Lenten hit list. And that’s how I came across Bishop Edward Condry of the Diocese of Salisbury.

Salisbury's most famous house draws loads of visitors.

Salisbury’s most famous house draws loads of visitors.

Forget the sweets. The Bishop went big and put some thought into his Lenten challenge by ditching his car and committing to serve his rural community by bike, by foot, and limited public transportation. Granted, he is an avid biker but anyone who’s ever visited a city in England like Salisbury knows it’s not easy to traipse around from one end to the other without a car, but the bishop was intent on doing this for several reasons. The first is for the traditional Lenten observance of fasting, the second is to call attention to climate change, and the third is to be more respectable of nature’s gifts and resources.

The coolest thing is, he’s blogging about it daily.

And that brings me to travel. Specifically to travel agents and travel ambassadors everywhere. Every place you go, including your own backyard, is an opportunity to share your experience. The bicycling bishop may be pedaling around town inspiring others through his unique choice of Lenten observance but his travels are generating ideas and he’s finding inspiration to write about them.

Because that’s what travel does, it generates ideas. Towards people, food, wine, arts, fashion, architecture, sports, culture, politics, the environment, or religion. No matter how near or far we travel, it stimulates us in some way. Bishop Condry was stimulated by his faith to look around and approach abstinence in 2014 from a different perspective. The view from his handlebars stimulated him to write about it.cropped-ed-cycling-email

If you’re not used to writing it may feel a bit daunting at first, as in—who am I to write about this? But I’d ask—who are you not to write about it? I have a feeling the bishop would ask you the same thing.

Once you brush your fear aside and get your thoughts on the page you just might discover that you have a lot to say. You can start as big or as small as you like. There are no rules, so don’t make any. Bishop Condry didn’t.

In this world of user-generated content, travelers everywhere contribute to thousands of travel sites. If you’re afraid to take a big leap, start small. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Vimeo, are great outlets to share your travel experience through words and photos. Just find the one that works for you. Skittish about social media or afraid to click the publish button? No sweat, just break out the old pen and paper, it works every time.

Travel agents who might think there’s no way they can write just might surprise themselves. Speak with your owner or manager about doing a piece on your next trip and publishing it on the company website. If your agency has a marketing department, ask a colleague for guidance to help craft it.

ed-static-with-lock-emailBishop Condry’s goal is to clock 2,000 miles without a car and he’s halfway there. His daily blog posts are musings on his Lenten experience, and about nature, wet clothing, climate change, the people he meets along his travels, and about transportation. Through this observance he’s discovered a few new ways to spread the good word and share it. He’s certainly inspired me to ride and to write. The man is one cool dude.

Whether you hop on a bike or a plane, take a page out of the bishop’s book. Don’t be shy.

Interested in riding along with the Bishop Condry? Click here.

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

Dublin celebration.

Dublin celebration.

Everybody’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. At least that’s how the saying goes.

There certainly is something infectious about St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps it’s all the merrymaking or maybe it’s just something about the Irish. For cities that go green in honor of the great patron saint, the celebrations can sometimes be hard to avoid.

Anyone who’s ever visited Ireland knows the place is magic. Even my friends from the Emerald Isle who live in the US will tell you the same. Being from or having grown up in Ireland is a different kettle of fish. It’s only by being there that you can truly appreciate and understand the Irish. For Irish-American friends who’ve never been, you have no idea what you’re missing.

County Clare's Cliffs of Moher.

County Clare’s Cliffs of Moher.

To them I’d also say skip the St. Paddy’s Day parade and forgo the hangover you’ll have the next day. Instead be bold and grab a last-minute flight or travel package for the real deal. Anyone touching down in Éire over the next few days will be spoiled for choice with celebrations.

In the States, St. Paddy’s day may be all about parades, beer, corned beef and cabbage but in Ireland it’s a religious holy day and public holiday. Parades are held (pretty much an American import) and festivities take place across the counties. While folks may pop into a pub for a pint, you won’t find the swilling that goes on here. You won’t find any corned beef and cabbage either. Irish immigrants in the US who couldn’t swing for a traditional ham cooked up that dish from kitchen tips they borrowed from Eastern Europeans.

The man had a way with words. (Photo credit: C. Santino)

The man had a way with words. (Photo credit: C. Santino)

What you will find is an incredible culture rich in hospitality, literature, art, and music. Over the centuries, some of the most stimulating, beautiful, and enchanting words to grace a page or guitar note have been gifts from the Irish. Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Braham Stoker, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Nuala O’Faolain, Edna O’Brien—the list goes on and on. And what would a playlist be without the likes of Liam Clancy, Van Morrison, U2, or Elvis Costello, to name a few. I mean, really, as cultures go, there’s kind of no contest.

Dublin's Trinity College attracts locals and visitors.

Dublin’s Trinity College attracts locals and visitors.

In terms of hospitality, there’s no welcome like an Irish welcome. They are the land of a thousand welcomes, after all.

During my first visit in 1995, I was overwhelmed by the graciousness and generosity of strangers who directed me to follow their car, or who accompanied me by foot, to ensure I reached my destination.  When it comes to resting your bones, from hostels, to guest houses, to luxury hotels there are loads of lodging.  I like  Ireland’s Blue Book, leaf through it and you’ll understand why.

Before I traveled there, lots of folks said that while I’d probably like Ireland itself, that I’d hate the food. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

The potato famine left an indelible mark on its history but since then Ireland’s come a long way.  Thanks to lots of rain and the  rich and rolling land beneath its feet, the country ‘s long been a leader in the “from farm-to-fork” sustainable food movement.  Something that other parts of Europe, and especially the US,  came late to the party on.

A yummy lunch at Morans on The Weir. (Photo credit: C. Santino)

A yummy lunch at Morans on The Weir. (Photo credit: C. Santino)

On this small island you’ll find the freshest seafood you’re most likely ever to come by. Call me biased but there’s no salmon like Irish salmon. Whether inland or coastal, an afternoon pit stop spent over a piping hot bowl of delicate seafood chowder or plump and buttery mussels that melt in your mouth is heavenly. Some fresh-baked brown granary bread to sop up all the good stuff, and a nice healthy Guinness to chase it all down makes it a perfect meal. Meat lover or vegetarian—bring your appetite, you won’t be disappointed. Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork is Ireland’s most famous cooking school but as the country’s culinary reputation has grown, several others have popped up. The immersion experience that these schools offer draw professional chefs and foodies from around the globe and do their fair share of contributing to Ireland’s tourism.

Ballymaloe Herb Garden.

Ballymaloe Herb Garden.

If you can’t celebrate the real thing, from Alabama to Wyoming you can probably find a festivity near you. Like the symbolic shamrock, Boston, New York City, and Chicago act as patron city saints for St. Patrick’s Day in the States. If you’re in one of these cities this week, or month, chances you’ll find some good stuff. Check out Boston’s Irish Cultural Center, Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center, or the Irish Arts Center in NYC.

For folks looking for a quieter experience, throw on some Irish tunes or settle in between the pages of The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story for a magic mix of talent, or How The Irish Saved Civilization. An Irish coffee wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

I don’t know why some people are drawn more to other cultures than their own. Since my first journey to Ireland I’ve been back at least eight times. Yes, I’ve got a thing for the Irish and I’m happy to celebrate them any day of the week.

Sláinte and have a Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

Interested in Voluntourism? Do Your Homework.

(Photo credit: Earthwatch)

Monitoring meerkats in Kalahari.  (Photo credit: Earthwatch)

Voluntourism.

For many travelers, the chance to combine tourism and volunteer work sounds like the making of a great itinerary. It’s a nice and noble gesture, a chance to leave a good footprint in the places we trample for our own pleasure. It’s a chance to combine a passion for travel with a desire to give back and, hopefully, make a difference.

It’s often said that travel is the best education because it gives us a chance to connect with other cultures in a multitude of ways. Voluntourism provides a greater opportunity to make this connection. Over the past decade, voluntourism has developed into a revenue stream for travel companies and charities. It’s a product that gives them an opportunity to court tourists and travelers who want to get away and do good works at the same time. Sounds simple enough.

But where does your money go?

It’s the first question you might want to ask. If you sell travel, it’s the question you want all the answers to before you recommend voluntourism options to customers.   It’s the question that’s brought a lot of controversy to voluntourism, because the high price a consumer might pay—and some of these experiences can be pretty pricey—don’t always have a high level impact on the people and places where the good Samaritan work is being done.

Last month, The Journal of Sustainable Tourism published a study that revealed the more expensive a trip product, the less responsible it was. It also discovered that the less expensive the experience, the greater the impact. The study also found that just because a product is labeled as a volunteer tourism opportunity, it doesn’t mean the end results will be positive.

So what’s a traveler with pure intentions to do? According to Victoria Smith, lead author, and Dr. Xavier Font, who conducted the study, there are a few key things to look out for:

How is your money being used?
Basically, you’re looking for pricing transparency. If a company doesn’t publish this information, ask them to break it down for you. You want to know where your money is going and how the community or conservation effort you’re serving is benefiting from it. Most companies will take a cut, and that’s understandable, but it shouldn’t be more than 20%.

Tracking the little things. (Photo credit: Oceanic Society)

Tracking the little things. (Photo credit: Oceanic Society)

How does this project make a difference?
If you’re going to put in the time, you want to be sure it was well spent so it’s good to know the goals and details of a project up front. You also want to be sure that the project you sign up for will, in fact, use the skills you bring to it, or that you actually have the skills that might be needed. Depending on the project, you could be doing anything from chipping paint, to data entry, to teaching English, for example. It’s preferable to know in advance what you’ll be doing.

What is the length of the project?
In order to make a difference, we typically need to put in an investment of time. From students to baby boomers, people who commit to volunteer projects realize that to have any kind of impact, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for shorter-term experiences and that good things can’t be done in 48 hours. Where there’s a will—and a desire to give back—there’s a way, and travelers who’ve set their sights on charity work who can’t commit to extended lengths of time often use any vacation opportunity to connect with volunteer opportunities wherever and however they can.

It’s not about me.
Remember, life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.  Voluntourism isn’t vacation and any company that markets an experience this way should probably be avoided. Anyone looking to enjoy a bit of down time may want to cover that part of the trip first. This way, your needs are out of the way. Being of service is about following someone else’s lead; it’s about putting the needs of the community or the task at hand before your own. You’re there because you want to make a difference and the gift of giving is in knowing that your commitment contributes to the overall impact of a project.

Be prepared.
Committing to volunteer work abroad isn’t something that should be done on a whim. In addition to researching the company you book with, and depending on where you’d like to serve, you may need a visa, vaccinations, and possibly a background check. Doing your homework will help you identify the project that’s right for you.

Since his volunteer experience in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Ken Budd uses his vacation time to lend a hand around the world. It’s part of his mission to live a life that matters. Anyone who’s ever thought about volunteering, whether at home or abroad, may want to read his travel memoir, The Voluntourist. For a listing of credible organizations that market to individual or family volunteer experiences, Peter Greenberg Travel Detective is a good source. Voluntourism.org is a resource with loads of info, and TripAdvisor is another site to review volunteer experiences.

Whether you want to stay local or travel far.  Whether you can commit two nights, two weeks or two months to help make a difference, it’s all good.

Concierges—The Keys To The City.

230 Fifth boasts the largest rooftop bar in NYC.

230 Fifth boasts the largest rooftop bar in NYC.

This week, I had the incredible opportunity to work with some of the best concierges in New York City.

While I’ve often had the occasion to work with concierges while managing events programs in hotels, as an individual traveler I recommend using their service to help acclimate yourself to any new, or familiar, destination you may visit. We may live in the “just Google it” era, but there’s no substitute for the human touch.

“The thing with us is, yes, it is the Internet age but you have guests that come to you with piles of paper from their online research that you have to sort through to put them on the right track,” says Domenic Alfonzetti, chef (French for lead or head) concierge for the InterContinental Barclay. “You booked the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, it’s not a time ticket. Now you’re stuck queuing for 90 minutes or 2 hours before you can go through the security check and board the ferry. To boot, you didn’t check the weather, it’s raining, and it’s 32 degrees, or there’s too much ice on the Hudson and the boats aren’t going out! It’s always best to check with us first before you do these things,” he said.The Statue of Liberty and the circle line Ferry

Similar to travel agents, concierges will often get you the best rates and save you time as well. They’ll give you the lay of the land, east side, west side, all around the town. Their role as hotel ambassadors isn’t just about recommendations. Speaking with guests and establishing relationships helps concierges glean information and get regular feedback on restaurants, shows, or experiences they can’t get to themselves. They count on guest feedback to get a feel for whether or not to promote these places.

Beyond these doors...

Beyond these doors…

Concierges are also tapped by other sources, like travel agents, for their expertise in sourcing the best experiences within a destination. “There’s a lot of hype in New York City tourism and the concierge is all about substance, about making the discerning choice for our guests,” said Rafael Susana, concierge with London NYC.

A pretty swank dinner awaits you.

A pretty swank dinner awaits you.

If you’re wondering if millennials use concierge services, they do…in addition to their smartphone. “A lot of young people come down for recommendations and then double check it online” said David Rahner, concierge for JW Marriott Essex House New York. “Or they might have found what they want online but had they not stopped by, they may not get that extra bit of info that they’ll need to know about location, traffic, or the best time of day to reach a destination to avoid rush hour, construction, or some other issue that’ll ruin their plans.”

Another similarity they share with travel agents is that they experience and live the information they deliver.

Nicole Longchamp, concierge for the W New York Downtown said, “It’s about providing service. For me, it’s not work. I’m a natural explorer and when I see things and enjoy them, I share them with people. I notice things that most people don’t notice and see their importance as places of interest—from hole in the wall restaurants to the hardest table to get. My life is my work.”

“The best part is when guests come back smiling and purposefully stop by my desk and give me a report back of how great their day or night was—that’s what makes it so rewarding,” says Rahner.

Ela Orosova, concierge for Loews Regency, will happily share how her service extends beyond the desk. “Many times, we deal with helping guests recover lost items, like passports, iPhones, or other valuables. Often, it’s only through the determination and follow-up of concierges that guests are reunited with their items,” she said. Orosova knows that part of her job is to ensure that a guest isn’t worrying but rather enjoying their trip.

Cold Spring, an inside day trip tip on getting outside of the city limits.  Car not required.

Cold Spring, an inside day trip tip on getting outside of the city limits. Car not required.

Alfonzetti recently taught hospitality classes for over 2,000 Super Bowl volunteers. He said he had a great time teaching, and with his warm personality, approachable manner, and killer smile, he’s a natural for this line of work. Afterward, he went on to represent the New York Concierge Association at the Super Bowl Host Committee media lounge at the Sheraton Times Square this week, where he worked with 52 fellow concierges from around the city. “Assisting the media and other guests who needed info on how to get the most out of this town has provided us a great opportunity to learn from one another and be ambassadors for the city and the state. It’s encouraging other host committees to use the untapped power of the Les Clef d’Or, the national organization, as well as the local organization of concierges.

All of the concierges I met this week have hospitality in their bones and it was a great pleasure to work and learn from them. In fact, whether you’re a traveler or a travel agent, the next time you’re staying in a hotel, if it’s not a regular practice for you, take the time to introduce yourself and ask for their assistance in turning you on to something you don’t have on your itinerary.

In the meantime, here’s an opportunity to meet Domenic Alfonzetti and hear about some of the sweet things he has in store for visitors to New York City (YouTube clips are sometimes temperamental, so if you have any issues viewing the video then just click here):

Return of the Travel Agent.

Ienno-Guio-Dia, friend of travelers. (Photo credit: Nicholas Roerich)

Ienno-Guio-Dia, friend of travelers. (Photo credit: Nicholas Roerich)

Last week’s wintery weather got a lot of play in the news and across the blogosphere. As mentioned in the last post, while the weather wreaked a lot of havoc, travel agents also grabbed some limelight as they came to the rescue of customers stranded in the deep freeze at airports or in places they were trying to make their way to or home from.

On the heels of their success in dealing with the upset caused by the weather disruptions, travel agents are getting another boost. It seems like self-booking online is beginning to drop like those cold temperatures, which has travelers looking towards travel agents for their expertise. For more details around this, check out Travel Agents Back In Demand.

For some folks, getting away from booking online is like weaning yourself off caffeine. We’ve become so addicted to living life through online channels, it’s a hard attachment to walk away from…but it can be done. The same way you bonded to your smartphone, you can bond with a travel agent.

If you’re accustomed to navigating your life through online activity, you probably cringe at the idea of someone else handling your travel. I get it, you like the self-drive aspect. It’s a control thing, especially if you’re good at it.

Most people flock to the web with the goal of finding affordable travel, forgetting that time is money. And while it’s unlikely that millennials will start using travel agents anytime soon, for anyone who has ever been burned by an online travel “deal” or whose online booking has been derailed, there’s security in knowing there’s someone who’s got your back, who’ll go to bat for you, and who acts as a lifeline of sorts. Plus, they’re real and won’t run out of batteries.

After taking a hit from all of the online competition, it’s good to see travel agents on the rise. There’s plenty of great travel booking options to suit every need, let’s not forget that they’re one of them.

Travel Agents Battle Frozen Flights

Hank Cain, Chicago, Polar Vortex

Chicago, a frozen city. (Photo credit: Pilot Hank Cain)

Some people feel a bit pressured over resolutions when the New Year rolls around. If you don’t have any, it’s easy to buy into the belief that you need to make some. At some point, it just becomes overkill.

The thing is, any time is a good time to bring positive changes into your life but the New Year certainly helps. If you’re a travel agent, counselor, advisor, or travel ambassador of any kind, and have been meaning to take a stab at writing about your trips, or publicizing photos or videos of your experiences, then why not use 2014 as the inspiration to do it? Forget about labeling it as a resolution; instead think of it more as a chance to play around.

I haven’t cracked the code entirely on how to deal with the bad angels that hold us back from putting pen to paper but I do believe that giving yourself time to play is one powerful arrow to have in your quiver. And that’s the great thing about writing, or taking pictures. Because when you start playing with an idea you go places in your mind that aren’t set up with boundaries and “do not enter” zones. It’s the ultimate playground. And there’s a bonus to playing, you get happy—and who doesn’t want to be happy?

This week, travel agents have been busy bees, working overtime helping their customers out of a frozen jam. Between holiday travelers trying to make it back home or business travelers hitting the road again, the recent snowstorms that socked the Midwest and Northeast grounded thousands of flights. Things got worse when something called a polar vortex delivered a bone chilling, deep freeze that settled in across much of the country and the temperature plummeted into the single digits.  Chicago, with record-breaking temps of -15 degrees and a wind chill of -47 that gripped the area, seemed to take the brunt of it and looked like a city suspended in a giant ice-pool. Niagara Fall froze.  But when JetBlue canceled thousands of flights it was the icing on the cake.

The polar vortex even gripped Niagra Falls. (Photo credit: Reuters)

The polar vortex even gripped Niagara Falls. (Photo credit: Reuters)

For anyone who booked their travel online, you could tap away on that smartphone and it wasn’t going to do you much good. Without the likes a travel agent or airline rep trying to sort it all out for you behind the scenes, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that you were getting on a plane. Yeah, I know, I’m tossing the clichés around but it’s kind of hard not to play with them given the circumstances.

Any time there’s disaster that affects air transportation, travel agents hustle to get travelers where they need to go. These days, most folks find it hard to believe there was a time when if you wanted to fly, you’d have to use a travel agent. With all of the online options out there to book travel and hotels, it’s understandable. Especially for anyone who came of age using the Internet.

Polar Vortex, Boston, canceled flights, JetBlue

Boston’s frozen flights.

Although it’s faced mammoth competition from online services, the travel agency industry is still holding its own. It continues to prove that travel agents matter, but it shouldn’t take bad weather or a disaster for consumers to recognize their value.

Right out of the gate, 2014 presented travel advisors with the perfect opportunity to prove their mettle but there’s a lot more that they bring to the party and I hope they share it. With all of the competition out there in the travel zone, agents and advisors shouldn’t feel awkward about tooting their own horn.

It’s a new year—be bold, be brave, have fun with it. Play.