PROFILE: Friedman still flying high after tough year for travel

Nancy Friedman has been trotting the globe since age 15, so it's no wonder her firm is helping travel companies get off the ground as Americans get back to being tourists. Claire Atkinson reports.

Nancy Friedman has been trotting the globe since age 15, so it's no wonder her firm is helping travel companies get off the ground as Americans get back to being tourists. Claire Atkinson reports.

When the Ritz Carlton at New York's Central Park held its official opening at the end of May, Nancy Friedman helped guide a small group of reporters on tours of the penthouse suite and the new La Prairie spa. As reporters waited for their turns, they quaffed chilled champagne and lobster canapes, and schmoozed with the hotel's GM and head of diplomatic affairs.

In years gone by, such events were the purview of feature writers, but as the travel trade emerges from one of its roughest years, the opening of a Ritz Carlton in New York is a big story. Friedman explains that travel stories have been getting much more space on the news desk, and that has contributed to many travel companies switching their budgets toward PR.

Friedman's agency hasn't just been getting clients space in the media; it's also helping travel companies feel their way through the year. As our interview ends, a conference call begins: Clients are on the phone, looking for advice about fall media strategies and the market in general.

"They want to know what the fourth quarter will look like - whether they need to plan b-roll shoots, and what the plans are for long-lead magazines, says Friedman.

"It's been a tough year, but the travel industry is coming back, she says.

"People will always want to travel. Friedman counts hotels and resorts across the world as clients. They include the Great Eagle Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, to Spring Creek Ranch in Jackson Hole, WY - not to mention a handful of travel websites, including Orbitz and Quikbook.

Her agency, which has made a profit continuously since its first few months in business, has her traveling anywhere between 12 and 20 times a year. The seeds of her wanderlust were sown during an American Youth Hostel cycling trip around Europe at age 15.

The group leader dumped Friedman and her friends in Amsterdam, and they made their own way around by public transport until the end of the trip.

Since then she's studied environmental science on Vancouver Island, and worked with emotionally disturbed girls in the Mohabi desert in California.

Friedman began her career at Travel + Leisure magazine. "I just fell into PR, she says. From there, she went to the European Travel Commission.

After six weeks on the job, she noticed a long line of Americans in Rockefeller Center planning trips to Europe. She pitched the idea to Time and it ended up on the front cover. From there, she went to the Tourist Information Center for the Dominican Republic, later joining Jessica Dee Communications.

One of her jobs was to help open Ian Schrager's Morgan's Hotel. She then moved in-house, working for Schrager and his partner, the late Steve Rubbell, where she worked on the opening of the Palladium nightclub, and saw the beginnings of the Schrager hotel empire. "It was very different fielding a lot of calls and negotiating covers of leading magazines when everyone wants the exclusive, she recalls.

By 1987, Friedman was approached by a number of people who wanted to work with her, and she decided to open her own agency, at the age of 30.

"I like being the boss. If you tend to rebel against authority, then you need to have your own business, she jokes. "I have loved every job I've had, says Friedman, who started her working life at Jimmy's Back Yard, a seafood restaurant on Long Island.

Of course, being in travel PR isn't always a bowl of cherries. Friedman remembers one press trip where the car broke down, leaving her and a group of reporters stranded in the heat for hours in a small town in the Caribbean.

Assistant to the president and publisher of Travel + Leisure magazine
PR director for the European Travel Commission
PR director at Tourist Information Center for the Dominican Republic
Joins Jessica Dee Communications, which eventually becomes PT & Co.
In-house PR with Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager
Founds Nancy J. Friedman PR
On another occasion, a journalist took home a tennis outfit, and insisted on the hotel picking up the tab.

However, Friedman says that group press trips are largely going out of favor - there are difficulties coordinating the schedules of top-tier journalists. "You put all this effort into them, and people drop out at the last minute. We were left holding plane tickets and room reservations for as many as three out of six reporters. So many magazines don't accept them. We do more targeted pitching now, she says, though the agency still accompanies reporters on one-on-one trips.

All in all, travel PR is not without its problems, as Friedman can point to numerous disasters she's dealt with. "We've had thefts and fires," she recalls. But if she could handle them, helping the village of Cooperstown, NY, come out from under the shadow of the Baseball Hall of Fame (another Friedman client) was certainly within her grasp.

The agency is currently in a partnership with Burson-Marsteller, helping to promote Orbitz to the travel press. "Burson came to us to work on the account. They were heading public affairs, and we rounded out the team."

Peter Himler, MD of Burson's corporate practice, has long been a fan of Friedman. "She's very sophisticated and savvy, he says. "She knows every travel writer, and she's very smart about communicating with them."

Running your own agency is no easy task and, as Friedman explains, "I still get a thrill with every hit for a client, but I hate all the HR work. Every day, I'm dealing with people issues, but I'm getting better at firing people."

Friedman spends much of her free time with her two children and her husband, an FBI agent who's now working in the Bureau's press department. But she's still found enough time to cochair the PRSA's 2001 Travel and Tourism Conference and Marketplace, and is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.

In a moment of reverie, Friedman says, "In my next life, I'd like to run a philanthropic foundation and make the world a better place. She's already been chair of the Friends Committee of the American Cancer Society, so who knows? Maybe she'll get her wish.

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