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Originally published Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 10:00 AM

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A travel agent fights back — with theater

The off-Broadway production “Craving for Travel,” sponsored mostly by the travel industry, does its best to highlight and romanticize a travel agent’s work.

The New York Times

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Consider the hapless travel agent. Undercut by Expedia. Ignored by app-reliant consumers. Overlooked, thanks to the digital revolution.

Last year, travel agents accounted for just 32 percent of bookings in the United States, down from 41 percent in 2006, and much more before that, according to the industry research firm PhoCusWright.

But at least one travel agent isn’t going down without a fight.

Jim Strong, president of Strong Travel Services, wants the world to know his trade is still thriving. Or at least is still relevant. And to make his case, he is mounting a $300,000 production off-Broadway, largely backed by sponsors in the hospitality industry, who in exchange for their investment are receiving blocks of tickets. It is the rare theatrical endeavor inspired by, paid for and playing to the travel industry.

The work, “Craving for Travel,” had its debut earlier this month at the Peter J. Sharp Theater on 42nd Street. The breezy one-act comedy, commissioned by Strong, features two actors inhabiting 30 roles, and does its best to romanticize the work of booking hotel rooms and scheduling flights.

The script, written by Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg, who is also directing, features the characters Gary and Joanne, “rival travel agents and former spouses” competing to outdo each other by fulfilling ever more outlandish requests from their demanding clients.

One secures a last-minute block of suites at a luxury hotel in Hawaii over Christmas. The other wins permission to take the USS Intrepid, the aircraft carrier that is now a museum, for a spin around Manhattan.

But the action in “Craving for Travel” is not on one of these excursions. It takes place in offices — Gary and Joanne don’t leave their desks.

For Strong, that’s where the magic happens. Planning exquisite adventures, he finds, is nearly as exciting as experiencing them.

Strong Travel caters to wealthy clients in the Dallas area. Strong took over day-to-day operation of the agency, which his mother, Nancy, started in 1997. Since then, he has made it his mission to promote the industry, writing books about his exploits and even composing a song called “Craving for Travel.”

But his quest took on new urgency after President Barack Obama dismissed travel agents during speeches in recent years. “When was the last time somebody went to a bank teller instead of using the ATM, or used a travel agent instead of just going online?” the president said at one.

Those were fighting words to Strong.

So, new to Broadway, he entered the world of New York theater in an unorthodox fashion. In search of creative partners, he cold-called talent agencies, who eventually steered him to Sandberg, an up-and-coming writer and director, who then roped in Edwards, another young playwright.

Instead of signing on producers who would hope to recoup their investments, Strong went to the luxury travel operators who take good care of his clients. After sending so much money their way over the years, he assumed they might send some back. And he was right.

Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Viking Cruises and Travelex Insurance, among others, signed on as sponsors. In return, the companies received ads in the program and blocks of tickets to the play, which they can distribute to clients.

“Nobody has ever tried to do something like this before,” said Susan Helstab, executive vice president of marketing at Four Seasons, who approved the sponsorship. “But Jim is very persuasive. His passion really rubbed off.”

Strong is optimistic. He is already talking about opening productions of the show at luxury resorts in Dubai and India, and on cruise ships.

But first, “Craving for Travel” must survive Broadway. Or at least off-Broadway. His reputation is “on the line,” Strong said. “If this is not a good show, there will be a lot of talk about me.”

And that, perhaps, is the point.

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