Jim Strong, by all accounts, is one of the best travel agents in all the land. Last year, he and his mother, Nancy, made Travel + Leisure’s annual list of top travel agents (there were just 161). In a Dallas Morning News article about the Strong Travel Services coup, Cindy Rachofsky told a story about breaking her phone while on a trip to Venice. Strong secured a replacement, had it updated in Dallas with Rachofsky’s contacts and so forth, then flew to Venice to hand-deliver it. That’s the sort of fellow he is. Here’s something else about Strong: he has about 150 hotel rooms, the best of the best from around the world, committed to memory. The manager of the Hôtel Le Meurice in Paris grew so annoyed by Strong’s habit of requesting specific rooms for his clients that he threatened to change all the room numbers in the hotel.
One response to the foregoing might very well go like this: “Are you kidding? There is still such a thing as a travel agent? I thought those were like telephone books and porn on VHS, things the internet killed.”
Which is exactly why Strong decided a few years back that something needed to be done. “We as an industry do not come together very well to put out a message in a way that is noticed,” he says. “So I said to myself, maybe what I’ll do is something in a very public forum. I’ll do a play.”
Of course. Because, after all, he had such extensive experience in the field. For example, he knew how to buy tickets.
Strong called a New York talent agency and asked for up-and-coming playwrights. He got two names, one of which was Andy Sandberg, a name that over the phone sounds like the one belonging to the guy who did “Motherlover” with Justin Timberlake on Saturday Night Live. In fact, Sandberg, who, in addition to writing and acting, was a producer of the Tony Award-winning revival of Hair, has gotten checks in the mail that were intended for Samberg. Imagine Sandberg’s reaction when a travel agent from Dallas cold-called him with a proposal to create an off-Broadway play about travel agents that would raise the profile of the industry.
“I have to admit that at first I was a little skeptical,” Sandberg says from New York. “It was a very random pitch.”
Strong went to New York to make it in person, over breakfast at a hotel called The Pierre that overlooks Central Park. With assurances from Strong that he wasn’t looking to make an infomercial, Sandberg signed on. And … curtain.
Act II opens on a beach in Turks and Caicos. It is last summer. A first draft of the play, Craving for Travel, which features two actors performing 30 roles (mainly two rival travel agents who were once married to each other), has been given a read-through in New York. Now Sandberg and his writing partner, Greg Edwards, hammer out revisions as Strong alternately flogs them with a buggy whip and fuels them with cocaine so pure that only someone with 36 years in the luxury-travel business would know how to score it. All true, except for the part about the whipping and the drugs. The three men worked for five days on the play.
Sandberg says staying at the resort was the best perk he’s ever gotten from a job, and Strong was very respectful of the writing process. “Yes, the show is funded by sponsors and a lot of major companies,” he says. “But nowhere has Jim asked us to plug them in a shameless, obnoxious way.”
Ah, yes. A word about those sponsors: even before the show began its previews on January 9, 40 percent of the month-long run at the 128-seat Peter Jay Sharp Theater was already sold. That’s because companies such as Four Seasons, Sabre Travel Network, and Viking Cruises are in on the deal. As a first-time producer, Jim Strong has proven himself a quick study. If this travel agent thing doesn’t pan out, it looks like he might have a fallback.