Some travel agents might not have had the opportunity to get to know Bob Whitley, who died suddenly this past month, because as president of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) he generally worked more with travel executives and media than directly with agents. This is unfortunate because agents may never know what a great friend they lost.
Whitley was, above all, a champion of travel. Naturally, he was most vocal about the tour operator industry, and Whitley’s stewardship at the USTOA helped build that organization into one of the most powerful and — more importantly — most stable in the industry. I know he was very proud that the vast majority of tour operators survived the recent economic crisis.
On a personal note, in his role as president of USTOA, Whitley was always ready to help out the media with insights gained from his in-depth understanding of the industry. At his press conferences, reporters were sure to come away with a few great quotes — and a few good laughs.
One of the ways I will always remember Whitley is the way he presided over the card-flipping contest at the annual USTOA conference — a somewhat complicated, but always amusing, tradition at the event. The way he managed to keep a room full of party-minded delegates — from many different cultures and speaking different languages — focused on the task at hand until the wee hours of the morning was a sight to behold. It was classic Whitley.
Also classic was his determined support for the USTOA’s scholarship programs and, in particular, Tourism Cares (TourismCares.org), a nonprofit organization he helped found. I was looking forward to joining Whitley next month in San Francisco to work on the group’s Angel Island restoration project, and it saddens me to know that he will not be there in person, but only in spirit.
Whitley may be gone too soon, but there’s no doubt his legacy will live on in the tourist sites he helped save and in the opportunities tour operators provide to bring people around the world closer together.