Business

Meacham Travel watches global trends, events for its customers

Keeping an eye on Hong Kong

The logo for Meacham Travel Service, 229 E. Washington St., in Iowa City, Iowa on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. Elaine Shalla, along with her husband Dennis, have owned and operated the travel agency since 1987. been a preferred agency of The University of Iowa since 1997. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
The logo for Meacham Travel Service, 229 E. Washington St., in Iowa City, Iowa on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. Elaine Shalla, along with her husband Dennis, have owned and operated the travel agency since 1987. been a preferred agency of The University of Iowa since 1997. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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When pro-democracy protesters shut down Hong Kong’s international airport in mid-August, Elaine Shalla didn’t learn about it from cable TV news or a smartphone app.

“We see repercussions right away,” Shalla said. “We’re routing some people that were supposed to go through Hong Kong that don’t want to make that connection there now. That does have an almost immediate impact on our business.”

Revising clients’ itineraries in response to global events — or just a winter storm — has become routine for Shalla since she and her husband, Dennis, became owners of Meacham Travel.

The couple bought the business in 1987, about nine years after Elaine began working there, more or less by accident.

“I got my degree from Iowa and I was working on my Ph.D.,” recalled Shalla, who’s from Wellman. “My husband was farming. We didn’t know what we’d do in the future, what I would do with a degree in Classics. I did eight years of Greek, seven years of Latin, a little French and German and Italian.

“I was chatting with a departmental secretary and she recommended I come over and talk to her friend.”

The secretary meant to send Shalla to a friend named Dottie who worked at another travel agency. But she directed Shalla to Meacham instead.

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“I walked in, I sat out in the lobby, and they showed me into the office and a man was sitting here,” she said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know who you are but you aren’t Dottie.’ In the end, he hired me as a part-time delivery girl to deliver paper tickets to the (University of Iowa) hospital. That was 1978.”

The man was F.E. Meacham.

“He’s the one who started it in ’52, in the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel just down the street,” Shalla said. “He was a railroad ticket man who then branched out into the airline industry when air service began.”

The Shallas have owned the business for nearly as long as its namesake founder, and the pace of change has only accelerated. Meacham Travel still books for Amtrak and foreign rail travel, but paper tickets have been eliminated with the rise of online reservation services.

“We adapted as things changed,” Shalla said.

One big change was the airlines’ elimination of commissions on tickets written by independent agents such as Meacham. Beginning in the 1990s, the trend culminated in the complete elimination of fees after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Everything changed on the airline side,” Shalla said. “We wouldn’t survive without the agency fees.”

In response, independent agencies instituted their own service fees on airline tickets. Tour operators and cruise lines still pay fees, although they’ve been reduced.

Hotels and car-rental operators don’t pay fees, but Meacham will book them if it can be done on its own computer system.

“Things like B&Bs or Airbnbs, they don’t take commissions so we don’t book those,” Shalla said.

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The UI is a steady source of business for Meacham, a contract agency for university travel for 27 years.

“We do study-abroad groups and other tour groups,” Shalla said. “We’ve done groups for Hancher (Auditorium) and the (Cedar Rapids Museum of Art). We do a lot of international travel, both for the university and for non-university clients. I think that’s still a level of expertise people appreciate, having that advice.”

Political tensions affect travel plans for all clients.

“There are so many safety concerns with traveling abroad,” Shalla said. “We did a lot of tour business to Egypt. Middle Eastern destinations, too, people feel really concerned about traveling, just for personal safety. Many people are looking for a tour rather than going on their own, so they feel a little more sense of security, that there would be someone there to help in an emergency.”

As travelers adapt to security concerns, “we do see then an uptick in bookings to Europe, to Australia, New Zealand, South Pacific destinations, Japan, where people feel a greater sense of security and safety,” Shalla said.

When bad weather disrupts airline travel, Shalla and the agency’s three other employees go to work rebooking flights.

“Last winter was terrible,” she said. “We had a lot of weather-impacted flights.”

Business travel is dominated by Washington, D.C., and such popular conference destinations as New Orleans, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We do a lot of inbound conferences, people coming here to Iowa City for training and education,” Shalla said. “We do their airline tickets for them and any other activities are arranged through their host.”

Meanwhile, Shalla’s keeping an eye on Asia.

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“I have two who are supposed to come from Hong Kong next week,” she said. “I have fingers crossed that it’s calmed down enough that they could come.”

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AT A GLANCE

• Owner: Elaine and Dennis Shalla

• Business: Meacham Travel

• Address: 229 E. Washington St., Iowa City

• Phone: (319) 351-1360 or (800) 777-1360

• Website: meachamtravel.com

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