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Travel Exchange First-timers

Is this your first rodeo? Use this page to learn from Travel Exchange veterans so you’ll feel 100% prepared to take on your first convention when we all head to San Antonio in December.

  • How do I network outside of appointments?

    David Miller, Flying Saddle Resort

    “As a first time attendee, you must become a people person and step out of your personal comfort zone. Talk to people. Hospitality is a very personal business. Use the shuttles to and from the event. Choose a seat next to someone so you can find out about them and how they make NTA work for them. Don’t discount the value in this. I made my first contact on my flight by being open to discussion. I am now part of a marketing group which offers tremendous value on an ongoing basis.”

    Dave Nitkiewicz, Experience Grand Rapids

    “My first contact was made in the airport. I met folks from another CVB and was grateful for their insight. You never know who you’re going to meet, so look around! Watch for badges and don’t be afraid to say hello, this is the hospitality industry—people don’t bite I promise!

    Lisa Schmidt, Space Needle and Chihuly Garden & Glass

    “Visit as many educational seminars as possible, as they are helpful and valuable. Also, attend all of the social networking events. It’s a great way to see the host city and get to know your peers in a more relaxed environment.”

  • What events do you recommend first-timers attend?

    David Miller, Flying Saddle Resort

    “I find great value in volunteering, especially on the registration day. You get an introduction to almost everyone. It may be very fast-paced at times, but it is the building block to strike up a conversation when you see them next. I know it’s tempting to go back to the hotel and rest between day and evening events, but don’t take your socks off. Take your shoes off and rest your feet but if you take your socks off the chances you will decide not to go out again increase exponentially and you need to socialize at the evening events, it’s a critical key to your success.”

    Dave Nitkiewicz, Experience Grand Rapids

    “I found attending the city tour to be eye-opening. It was a rare opportunity to be a tourist with other tourism professionals. Ideas flutter around and if you’re not a big fan of formal networking, it’s an approachable way to meet people!

    Lisa Schmidt, Space Needle and Chihuly Garden & Glass

    “All of the social evening networking events are fabulous! The first-timer seminars are also very helpful in terms of what to bring, what to expect, “do”s and “don’t”s, etc.”

  • One tip for first-timers taking appointments?

    David Miller, Flying Saddle Resort

    “Have your talking points worked out in advance. Don’t wing it. Stick to your reasons why you asked for the appointment. Dress for success and be respectful of their time. Don’t use your cell phone during the appointment. We’re all busy and value our devices, but you’re here to sell. You can unplug for six minutes and survive.”

    Dave Nitkiewicz, Experience Grand Rapids

    “A local Grand Rapids philanthropist who built our biggest attraction, the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, has a great quote that I try to remember while taking appointments: “Customers don’t need us, we need them”—a very simple truth that is often forgotten. Hospitality is about putting the needs of our guests first. That mentality is crucial. Try approaching appointments as a front desk agent approaches a new guest—at their service.”

     Lisa Schmidt, Space Needle and Chihuly Garden & Glass

    “I have three tips:

    1. Schedule your appointments early. Make time to do research on all of the companies who request appointments with you and the companies you are interested in meeting with. Take notes on each company and come prepared to the meetings with your notes in hand. Tour operators appreciate that you’ve done the research and aren’t going in blind.
    2. Understand cultural norms. For example, for all Asian tour operators, especially Chinese, always hand them your business card with BOTH hands. NEVER write on the name card as it is considered disrespectful in their culture
    3. Fly in a day early to adjust to time zones and familiarize yourself with the area and schedule. Feeling sleepy during appointments and trying to stay awake is the worst. No amount of coffee will help jet lag.”
  • Three items every attendee needs?

    David Miller, Flying Saddle Resort

    “Pack lots of business cards and keep some with you at all times, not back at the hotel in your luggage. Bring good comfortable shoes and a good back pack or computer bag to keep yourself organized. You get lots of information and cards from fellow vendors and suppliers. If you have a bag with your supplies you will have a pen and can make notes on the card to jog your memory for when you get home and try to put names and faces together.”

    Dave Nitkiewicz, Experience Grand Rapids

    1. Lots of business cards
    2. Profile Sheets
    3. Extra Space for all of the stuff you’ll bring home

    Lisa Schmidt, Space Needle and Chihuly Garden & Glass

    1. Hand sanitizer
    2. Pens and something to take notes on
    3. Small personal stapler—I staple business cards to each notes page (AFTER the appointment) so I keep track for easier follow-up
    4. Business cards—you can never have too many!

Travel Exchange ’17 Ambassadors

Is there a question you’d love to ask one of your fellow NTA members about what to expect at Travel Exchange? How to work the floor? What to ask during your appointments? What to pack? Which events to attend? Now, you can! Travel Exchange ambassadors are your go-to NTA members for TREX17. They’ve been there; they’ve done that, and they’re here to help. Simply click on their names to ask them a question.

If you have any questions about things such as the appointment scheduling system, your NTAonline login and password, your registration, etc., please e-mail NTA HQ.

Jim CogginJim Coggin, Virginia Beach CVB

During his 27 years in the tourism industry, Jim has earned a reputation as a go-to guy, probably a good thing considering he works for a destination marketing organization. In additional to all the industry knowledge he’s accumulated, Jim has been to NTA’s Travel Exchange more than a dozen times and has served on the association’s leadership team. Seems like just the type of person you’d want to reach out to for peer-to-peer advice regarding the convention, right?

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever eaten?
Squirrel. You guessed it…It tasted just like chicken.


Laura ElkinLaura Elkin, Crescent Hotels & Resorts

Laura’s is a familiar face to many convention veterans, as it is one they likely encountered during one of the Travel Exchange 101 sessions or convention center tours she and Clayton Whitehead lead. Laura says one thing she tried to stress to those delegates who have been on her tours over the past decade is the many benefits of volunteering. “I encourage anyone to volunteer, since it provides opportunities for chats with other attendees—essentially more networking time.”

What was your dream job when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a detective or spy.


Scott HartcornScott Hartcorn, Shilo Inns Suites Hotels

After more than 25 years of working the floor at Travel Exchange, Scott channels his inner Boy Scout when asked to share advice with newcomers. “Be sure to come prepared. Whether you’re a seller or a buyer, know in advance what you want to accomplish. Come to the exchange floor with a specific reason why you are meeting with each company on your list. Also, what you do before and after convention is actually as important, and perhaps more important, than what you do at convention.”

What fad from back in the day do you wish would come back?
Bring back Space Invaders, Asteroids, Donkey Kong and Pac Man. They were the only computer games I ever got good at.


Melody JohnsonMelody Johnson, Falcon’s Crest

When Melody was growing up, she wanted to follow in her mom’s footsteps and become a school teacher, because she always loved learning. While she wound up in the travel industry instead, she sees learning as an essential part of running her own tour company. And one of the main lessons she learned over the years is the value of building quality relationships with DMO representatives and tour suppliers. And where does she meet these partners? That’d be Travel Exchange.

If you could get up on stage with any musical group, who would it be?
The Glenn Miller orchestra


John ShafferJohn Shaffer, Luray Caverns

Among this year’s top-flight group of Travel Exchange Ambassadors, John trumps them all in terms of experience. He first attended the event during Ronald Reagan’s second term as U.S. president—that was 1984–88 for those of you needing a quick primer on presidential history—and has been building relationships with members ever since. His knowledge of the event and passion for the industry may only be surpassed by his love for the area he calls home, Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever eaten?
Lunch at my high school cafeteria.


Mindy SheaMindy Shea, Visit Savannah

Mindy gets the fact that Travel Exchange is a business-to-business show, which people attend primarily for the appointments they have with other members. But, true to her fun-loving nature, she also encourages members to take part in the social events and the sightseeing tours. “Through the show, you get to travel and visit a new city, so don’t just come for your appointments and leave. Get out and explore, take photos—make your friends and family jealous!”

What was your dream job when you were a kid?
To be a princess. I’m still working on it.


Suzanne SlavitterSuzanne Slavitter, Sports Empire & Authentic California Vacations

If you’ve ever met Suzanne, shy might not be the first (or 101st) word you’d use to describe her. And, she encourages all Travel Exchange first-timers to follow her lead. “Don’t be shy,” she says. “There is a lot going on, and every event is a networking opportunity.” Suzanne knows what she’s talking about, as evidenced by the fact that NTA presented her with its Bob Everidge Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 convention.

If you could get up on stage with any musical group, who would it be?



Christian UtpatelChristian Utpatel, Terra Lu Travel & Consult GmbH

The St. Louis convention will mark Christian’s fifth TREX, making him a babe in the woods compared to the rest of the Ambassadors. But, he’s a quick study and is one of NTA’s international members who has found great success by attending. In addition to owning a tour company, Christian is, appropriately, a pastor. Besides checking with him to get Travel Exchange pointers, be sure to ask him about two upcoming German celebrations: The Luther Reformation Jubilee in 2017 and Oberammergau 2020.

What fad from back in the day do you wish would come back?
Taking pictures with a camera, not with a cell phone, which means to wait until it’s worth taking a picture.


Michael WeinbergMichael Weinberg, Hiltons of Chicago

Hard to go wrong in sending your questions to the man who was named the 2016 NTA Volunteer of the Year. Michael earned that award for his excellent, extra-mile service as a Travel Exchange volunteer over the years, which you’ll come to appreciate once you meet him. His top recommendations for newcomers?  “Say HI to everyone and smile at them, because you never know which ‘hi’ is going to lead to your next big connection.” He also considers the “Ask the Operator” educational sessions a must.

If you could get up on stage with any musical group, who would it be?
Miami Sound Machine. All of their early songs were a party on stage!


Clayton WhiteheadClayton Whitehead, Sports Leisure Vacations

Speaking of A-list Travel Exchange volunteers, Clayton has been a mainstay at NTA’s signature event for the better part of three decades. The informative Travel Exchange 101 seminars he and Laura Elkin lead, along with his tours of the convention floor, are musts for first-timers, and he consistently earns kudos from newbies on the post-event surveys. While he is much better live, he also has a wellspring of wisdom he can draw from to help you as you are preparing for St. Louis.

What was your dream job when you were a kid?
Cruise director, like Julie on “The Love Boat.” I wrote Princess Cruises in high school to find out how to make it happen, and they answered!


  • NTA has provided us the research and atmosphere to brainstorm new ways of doing things and fresh additions to trips, which has led to successful business development. Rachel Ranck, WorldStrides, NTA member since 1985
  • What NTA does is provide the right buyers. They provide the right people who make decisions. This is what makes this organization one I can’t afford to take off my list. John Stachnik CTP, Mayflower Tours, NTA member since 1979
  • I came to NTA to build a business, and that’s exactly what it did for us, as sales came in. For me, it’s the only outlet for new ideas. Matthew Squire, Select Travel Service (UK), NTA member since 2002
  • NTA membership and our attendance at the convention have provided us with more clients, more business relationships and more ideas. We are proud to belong to NTA. Daniele Panzarin, Target Travel (Italy), NTA member since 2007
  • The No. 1 member benefit of NTA has to be all the great professional and personal connections we’ve made over the past decade. Taunya Wolfe Finn, CTP, Wolfe Adventures & Tours, NTA member since 2005
  • We have not found a more reliable, more profitable or more consistent tourism venue in which to acquire new business than NTA. Diane Hohnstein, Hospitality Management Services, NTA member since 1999
  • I believe attending the NTA conferences allow me to create valuable relationships and work together with U.S. operators in creating great Scotland product. Maggie Anderson, VisitScotland, NTA member since 2003
  • NTA events provide us with beneficial networking with many top tour operators. It’s national and international in scope providing a global perspective. Tim and Elaine Moulder, Brilliant Edventures, NTA member since 2015