Twenty-seven years ago in January I started my career as an Associate Editor at a trade magazine called Travel Agent. I had worked as an intern there for two summers so thankfully whoever screened my resume knew me and never asked to look at my college transcript.
Last week the gentleman who hired me, Richard S. Kahn, received the Winthrop W. Grice Lifetime Achievement Award from The Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI). Past winners include Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher and casino whizz Steve Wynn so for the North American travel industry the evening which features various awards for advertising and public relations campaigns is akin to the Oscars for Hollywood.
Before joining Travel Agent Richard was an award-winning reporter whose series on cargo thefts at Kennedy International Airport led to a Civil Aeronautics Board investigation. As Editor of Travel Agent for most of the 1980s he held a critical position at a time that travel agents were gaining power in the distribution system and the travel industry was enjoying a period of significant growth but also seeing the beginning of a dark side of terrorists targeting travelers.
It was a time when the American traveler was still the dominant species and the prime attraction for promoters of travel around the world. It would be more than a decade until Russian and Chinese travelers emerged. Airline deregulation and computerized reservation systems meant that the magazine’s agent readers were a critical link between airlines and consumers.
There were start-ups, mergers, and bankruptcies ongoing. There was also a youthful cruise industry that was just getting its sea legs. Ice skating rinks aboard were still a ways off. Eastern Europe was still behind the Iron Curtain. Adventure Travel and the spa industry hadn’t arrived. Frequent flier programs were just getting going. There was no Emirates Airlines and needless to say New York to Dubai didn’t have four daily nonstop flights.
At the time there were only four or five significant travel trade magazines and Travel + Leisure was the main consumer magazine. Conde Nast Traveler was just being launched. There was no Internet and plethora of bloggers. It was long before Trip Advisor and other consumer rating and review systems. Whether you were a new airline, a new destination, a new hotel or a new travel concept, if you wanted to tap into the U.S. travel market there were a select few people who could help or hurt your cause.
By any stretch of the imagination, Richard was one of the most influential and important people in the industry, however, it would be hard to tell that working for him or seeing him work. Richard sat in a semi-enclosed, glass walled office in the middle of the newsroom, in the middle of the action. If you wanted to talk to him, there were no appointments necessary. While some of his cohorts went about their business in a more imperial manner, Richard was involved in many industry associations, not just showing up to speak at their conferences but doing heavy lifting leading and working on committees. I remember after an evening event seeing Richard help with the clean up.
After leaving Travel Agent Richard started his own public relations company, Kahn Travel Communications. Public relations is a notoriously catty industry. Richard was always the same nice guy, heavily involved in various organizations and associations. Where many companies get a bug to expand and expand, Richard was seemingly content focused mainly on the Caribbean, and today his son leads the company and most of its client roster is incredibly loyal.
While many times in PR and publishing the people reporting the news or carrying the message allow themselves to be seduced by the spotlight that was never the case with Richard. Seeing Richard win the Grice award was a little bit proof nice guys do sometimes finish first.