By Dan Schlossberg
As Ted Baxter told his television colleagues on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, it all started at a little radio station in Fresno.
For NATJA, it all started at a little Meadowlands hotel in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.
After months of mulling around the idea of starting a non-political organization for travel journalists, Bob Nesoff and I invited a half-dozen friends to join us at the Novotel on a quiet, snowy mid-January night 30 years ago.
That night, we came up with a name – using the name North American to lure Canadian members – and decided eligibility would be determined by productivity rather than sponsorship by an incumbent member. We also chose Bob, who brainstormed the idea, as the first president; his wife Sandy, who passed away Jan. 24, as the first treasurer; and myself as vice president.
To keep members informed, we created a printed newsletter called The Wayfarer and an awards competition with entry fees to help keep the fledgling organization solvent. Prizes for that competition would be hotel stays rather than cash so that publicists would get a chance to promote their properties to a built-in audience of travel journalists.
We also voted on annual dues, as any new group needs financial impetus not only to get off the ground and survive but also to attract attention in the highly-competitive field of travel journalism.
Participants in that first meeting pooled their contacts, creating lists of potential invitees, and NATJA was off and running – or maybe crawling, in retrospect.
The association has come a long way since, growing from a half-dozen charter members to more than 400 credentialed travel journalists, broadcasters, photographers, authors, and publicists today.
NATJA went bi-coastal in 2000, affiliating with Lee Stanley’s East-West Network, and soon added Elizabeth Barnes as its first and only executive director. She soon married Matt Beshear, whose Apollo Interactive gave the group a digital presence. Our first conference soon followed.
When I mentioned to Evan Smith of the Greater Newport Convention & Visitors Bureau in Rhode Island that NATJA would love to hold regular annual conferences, he immediately offered his destination.
In 2003, Newport rolled out the red carpet, even arranging a formal dinner at the Marble House mansion that made it all of look like we were in a live taping of The Great Gatsby. This NATJA first set the stage for the many conferences to come, which emphasize the importance of the relationship between travel media and destination marketing organizations.
Every one of the annual conferences has had its own flavor, from a boat ride in Puerto Vallarta to a dance at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I even got to go back to my alma mater, Syracuse University, for the first time since I graduated 50 years earlier.
Personally speaking, it was my honor to serve as NATJA president for 15 years and to be president emeritus today. I have made many lifelong friends in the group and cultivated countless contacts helpful in my work as radio host of Travel Itch Radio for the past 10 years. Our 400th episode will be an hour-long special on Feb. 18.
We may be smaller and younger than any other association of travel journalists, but I like to say we are leaner and meaner. Thanks to Bob Nesoff for his original brainstorm and to Helen Hernandez for picking up the ball and running with it.
I know there are many great years ahead for all of us.