Stumbling on tourism


Tourism is such a large and sophisticated industry that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it holds opportunities for players that aren’t large or sophisticated. That’s one reason it’s my favorite industry; it’s got something for just about everyone. Me, I stumbled into the industry quite by luck, long before I ever heard of Saipan.

My tourism gig got rolling when I was an airport bum in the Mainland. I spent early mornings and late afternoons flying traffic-reporting duty for a few AM radio stations. This left about five hours of free time in the middle of the day. I split this time between going to the beach and giving flight lessons. On very rare occasions I’d give an air tour, but those customers were like neutrinos; I never had any idea where they came from nor where they went, and the mass seemed too small to worry about.

During my drives to and from the beach, I noticed that at mid-day there always seemed to be six or seven cars parked next to the airport fence along an otherwise bare stretch of road. There wasn’t any airport access from that area. In fact, there wasn’t anything in that area at all. I couldn’t figure out why the cars were there.

I asked a more experienced airport bum about this.

“Those are fence watchers,” he said.

“What’s a fence watcher?” I asked.

“They’re office workers from the nearby buildings. They pull their cars up to the fence, eat lunch, and watch the airplanes takeoff and land.”

I just shrugged at that. OK, I thought; so now I know what a fence watcher is.

As luck would have it, shortly thereafter I had lunch with one of the radio station managers who ran our airborne traffic reports. This guy was a super-smart business promoter. As an item of general interest, I mentioned this new species of airport life that I had learned about, namely, the fence watcher.

“Ed, those are future customers, sitting right there,” he said.

I hadn’t considered it in those terms. Until then, that is. I soon invested an entire $10 in making photocopied flyers that offered flight lessons and air tours. It only took a few minutes to make my daily rounds of the fence watchers, to introduce myself, and to hand out the flyers.

Flight lessons got main billing. The air tour stuff was more of an afterthought. My assumptions were exactly wrong on this count. It turned out that air tours were the far more popular thing. So, of course, I adjusted my next $10 batch of flyers accordingly.

And yet, here again, too, I made a wrong assumption. I had reckoned that since airplane tours were cheaper than helicopter flights, the airplane tours would be more popular. After all, I noticed that the first thing people asked about was the price. But the price issue turned out to be a false path. When it came to racking up actual sales, people preferred helicopters. Well, being quite the high roller, I dropped another $10 on my next batch of flyers to highlight the copters.

Things grew from there. I’ll just pause now to strike a tally. First of all, I had entirely overlooked an opportunity that was sitting under my very nose. After that, I misjudged the sort of service that would sell the best. And, after that, I managed to misjudge things yet again. And yet, having made those miscalculations, and having spent merely $30 on advertising, things worked out OK.

Of course, things could have just as easily not worked out OK. I chalk it up to randomness and the related power of trial and error. Still, some ideas are better than others, and some consequences are bigger than others, so heeding randomness doesn’t mean merely acting on a whim.

As much as I enjoyed the flying back then, I wound up taking better-paying work as an economist. I moved out of the area. But, having learned my lesson once, I was able to easily reconstitute the helicopter gig as a weekend thing. I found that tourism, like a rubber band, can really stretch or contract to suit your situation. I’ve since met musicians, photographers, cooks, casino dealers, boat captains, scuba instructors, restaurant servers, and tour guides who have, at various times, played full-time and part-time cards in tourist settings. This sort of flexibly can really spoil you, but I guess you’re not really spoiled if you’re thankful for it.

Most people I’ve known in the tourism sector have, indeed, been thankful to be part of the action. Consequently, over the decades I’ve heard hundreds of “how I got started” stories from tourism pros all over the Pacific, including more than a few in Saipan.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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