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Marketplace

Making the perfect match

How NTA blazed the digital marketplace trail
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posted May 13, 2021
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As NTA turns 70 this year, the Courier team has mined for association gold. We’re digging up the precious pieces of history that shine with accomplishment, from the creation of the first automated marketplace to seating women at the board table for the first time. We’re retelling those incredible stories to celebrate how NTA has paved the way for travel associations—and will continue to be innovators in the industry as we move into better, more prosperous times for travel.


It was 1974 when the then-National Tour Brokers Association’s annual convention was commencing in Virginia at the Hotel Roanoke, and the method of getting attendees their coveted meetings with the industry pros of their choice was a “dance card” appointment program called the Sales-O-Rama. 

According to The Building of an Industry: The Official History of the National Tour Association, written by former NTBA president Lynn B. “Spike” Herzig, the program had, by then, seen better days. There were more people in attendance than originally thought (too many suppliers, not enough brokers), and as a result, tour brokers had to double up and share tables to meet with suppliers, known then as “allied members.” And instead of staying behind a designated rope, allied members gathered around tables in hopes of speaking with a broker. (It’s noted the room had low ceilings and no windows, so the lack of natural light and, apparently, fresh air, made things even more tense—and hot.) By the end of it all, everyone was crammed into one small area of the room, called the “bullpen.”

Sales O' Rama
Sales-O-Rama at the NTBA convention

Former NTA Board President (and then-president of Beckham Tours) Bruce Beckham’s recollection of his first NTBA convention in 1972 in St. Augustine, Florida, was a similar story.

“It was chaotic. They had all of the tour operators at 4-foot tables in a convention room. People would stand in a bullpen, all the sellers. They would ring a bell, and it was like a cattle drive, people rushing over to the tables, pushing each other out of the way,” he said. “It worked because tour operators appreciated the fact that they could get some info, but the frustration level on the part of suppliers was high.”

Many complaints rolled in about how the marketplace was being conducted, so at the board meeting in February 1975, Board President Joseph A. Casser put Rick Etherson, who was convention chairman, in charge of finding a solution. He recruited the help of his friend, Dr. Oscar Fowler, a professor of computer science at the University of Tennessee. 

“He was a computer expert in 1974, 1975. You didn’t run across those guys often,” Beckham said. “They were few and far between—people of great knowledge of computerization at the time.”

Fowler had said a program could be developed “that would put the choices of both active and allied members together and from that could come a dance card similar to the old Sales-O-Rama—except it would be done ahead of time, it would be accurate, and each participant would know where and what time appointments were scheduled.”

Off

 

All appointment requests were entered into the computer. (Members were asked for their top 50 choices for flexibility in scheduling.) Then, the computer generated “perfect matches.” An excerpt from The Official History says, “The second step was to schedule appointments that were requested by tour brokers for the allieds. Going through the tour brokers’ requests first was done at the suggestion of the allied members. The concept was that if a tour broker requested to see an allied member, there was a strong prospect for business.”

The computer then sorted through the allied requests to see specific brokers, and last to be arranged were the fill-ins, matches that finished off each person’s schedule of about 25 appointments. The digitized marketplace would happen at the upcoming conventions in four sessions—one for DMOs, two for other allieds, and a makeup session for brokers to meet with members they missed in other sessions.

Beckham said Fowler became the go-to guy at the annual conventions; attendees went to him onsite for any info about their appointments.

“He was basically the voice of NTA at the marketplace. It worked. (The program) was refined and refined again. Oscar was there every year. He made it the best it ever was,” he said.

Fowler also accommodated all the last-minute changes. Beckham said, for example, if there was an emergency and an attendee needed to get in touch with someone on the floor that bustled with hundreds of industry professionals, they would just ask Oscar.

“He’d look in his computer and say, ‘He should be [here].’ Those little things, there were few people to manipulate that kind of data. It was absolutely revolutionary,” Beckham said. “It was brand new, and NTBA was the first travel organization to do any such thing.”

This excerpt from The Official History says, “Fowler’s concept revolutionized not only NTBA, but other marketplaces as well. Other associations copied Fowler’s program and NTBA became known as a real innovator in the association business.”

As motorcoach tours were growing in popularity at the time, the association flourished when it put the Sales-O-Rama to bed.

“It was not sustainable. The organization would not have been successful moving forward as a group,” Beckham said. “It grew basically because of that. It was the most organized. If (NTA) didn’t have the computer system, those same bullpens would still be in existence. It changed the marketing of the industry dramatically.”

Although there have been many changes in tourism since the ’70s, one activity remains a priority: face-to-face meetings with colleagues. And after a very difficult year apart, NTA members will be able to restore that prized exercise as they gear up for Travel Exchange 2021, in person.

Top photo by Normand Huberdeau