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November 30, 2007.: Born to wander Stephanie Abrams builds a media empire on travel lust

By Clarence Fanto, Special to The Eagle
Article Last Updated: 11/30/2007 01:17:20 PM EST

Sunday, December 02

From a compact studio and office in the underground complex of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, travel guru Stephanie Abrams presides over an expanding multimedia empire. She hosts two nationally syndicated radio talk shows each weekend; her Web site is a cornucopia of archived video and audio segments and advice.

"I always tell people I was born with traveling shoes on," she explained of her decision to shift two decades ago from teaching career in the New York City area, "so I presented myself to a travel agency and said, 'You need me!'

"They explained quickly how they didn't need me, because, in reality, while I had a lot of destination knowledge from my own travels, what I didn't have was the kind of professional knowledge related to the booking of trips through the computer systems — all the technical stuff related to a travel transaction."

But Abrams was allowed to "hang out" at the agency learning the basics, and after several years moved on to work for several tour operators, later joining the Travel Network, a consortium of 400 franchised travel agencies in 37 states and 21 foreign companies.

She became executive vice-president at the
company headquarters in New York City, which was relocated later to Englewood Cliffs, N. J.

Then, after 16 years, she said she was fired on Oct. 12, 2001, as the tourism industry suffered a post 9-11 "bloodbath."

"There was panic in the company president's office," said Abrams, who, at the time, was living in New Jersey and weekending in Lanesborough.

"It was ugly; I took that company from a $200-million company to a $1-billion company. . . . The best part was finding out what esteem I was held in the travel industry. But I was devastated."

As it turned out, there was a silver lining.

"One of the hardest things I ever did was leaving the Berkshires on Sunday nights," she recalled. "The downsizing was the best thing that ever happened to me, so we headed to the mountains!"

Abrams had discovered the Berkshires with her husband, Mark, an executive at Gabriel Industries, a toy manufacturer, after the company president and former Jacob's Pillow Board Chairman Morton Levy introduced the family to the area. They spent two extended summers at Bonnie Brae Campgrounds, near Pontoosuc Lake.

"Somewhere after the second summer, I said, 'Enough of the camping!' " she laughed. "So we bought a house in the dead of winter."

The sold their house in Closter, N.J., and five years ago expanded the one they bought on the north end of the lake.

The couple have a son, Dru, now a graphic artist based in Amherst, and daughter, Tara Jacobs, who lives in North Adams and is active in a variety of philanthropic and community activities. Dru Abrams designed his mother's award-winning Web site.

A native of Baltimore, Abrams is coy about her age ("I'm older than 19," she quips). She moved to Miami with her family when she was 7, living for a year in the now-fashionable South Beach area before moving to New York City with her mother following the death of her father, Jacob Beber.

She received B.A. and M.S. degrees in education and social sciences from Queens College and worked for years as a teacher, from the elementary-school to the college level, before making her career change.

Abrams insists that she "doesn't believe in accidents, only miracles and faith, and my life is a series of things beyond coincidence. . . I started thinking about what I wanted to do, and I decided I wanted to work for a French hotel chain because I speak French fluently."

Within three weeks, she was able to obtain an invitation to a meeting and press conference at the Beverly Hills Meridien with Juergen Bartels, CEO of the Le Meridien hotel group. He had noticed several of her syndicated travel articles. There, she was introduced to executives for the Business Talk Radio Network and invited to appear as a travel expert on a show hosted by Alan Rothman, "The Business of Suc-cess."

After several weeks, Abrams proposed originating an upcoming St. Patrick's Day broadcast from Ireland. The suggestion was accepted, and while en route, she was offered her own show, on the condition that she find a producer and a broadcast site.

She contacted David Isby, then with WUPE in Pittsfield and now general manager of WSBS in Great Barrington, and her one-hour weekly show went on the air July 7, 2002.

After the first year, awaiting word on the fate of the program and fearing cancellation, Abrams was asked to expand it to two hours.

"Travel with Stephanie Abrams" is now heard on 87 affiliates of the Business Talk network, reaching a potential national audience estimated at about 4 million people.

A syndicated spin-off, "Travel-ing Feet," is broadcast on about 45 affiliates; Isby, who conceived the show for his company, Millennium Music, is the host, with Abrams as guest travel expert.

Abrams, who has also developed a TV show, "Jet Set 411," is intent on making an bigger name for herself as a multimedia expert, with an expanding presence on-line, on radio and TV and as a motivational speaker.

She described her media activities as "providing the listening and the traveling public with information related to suppliers in the industry (hotels, resorts, car companies) as well as destinations that I believe will send you home feeling inspired, enhanced, uplifted and knowing somehow that you are a better person than when you left home, whether it's for a business trip or a pleasure trip."

As she sees it, her mission is "connecting people with the platinum, rather than the plastic experience.

"That doesn't mean it has to be costly; it does mean it has to be memorable, not cookie-cutter, not synthetic, but a real experience that you walk away feeling really enriched by."

Although the programs are supported by advertisers — "we have sponsors, and the sponsors pay for everything, all the bills, and if there were no sponsors, there would be no shows" — she said she has "final approval of just about everything that goes on, and I wouldn't feel comfortable with an advertiser that I didn't feel was doing the kind of job that needs to be done."

"We are content-intensive," she asserted, "and ultimately I make the decision on the content we're going to cover.

"What I do that's different from everybody else is that I don't look for the dirt. I don't look for what's wrong with it. ... If I think there's something wrong with a place, I'm not going to invite them on and then drop the other shoe and embarrass them."

Asked whether sponsors get preferential treatment for interview segments on her show, Abrams responded: "Chances are if we have someone who's a sponsor, it's probably grown out of being interviewed on the show. Every sponsor we've ever had is someone we've developed a relationship with, and someone I think our audience should know more about."

Often spotlighting French cha-teaux and exotic locales, Abrams takes her show on the road at least 20 weeks a year, including one month in Ireland every March to catch the early spring.

Upcoming destinations including Caribbean resorts. She hopes to visit Newfoundland next June to see "the whales sailing by with the icebergs."

Closer to home, Abrams de-votes several broadcasts each year to Berkshire tourism. Each week, she mentions the show's home base "here in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. Come on up, we'd love to see you!"

She also frequents travel and tourism industry events, including the new Tanglewood travel expo that made its debut in mid-September.

Acknowledging the "challenge" of travel in this era of a declining dollar and overcrowded skies, Abrams says many hoteliers overseas are anxious to keep their American clientele by maintaining a "dollar rate."

She cites one London hotel that accepts dollars on par with the pound, making a $496 room available for $248, "making it affordable and even ridiculous."

"Make travel a part of your life," she counsels. "There are opportunities to make something truly enjoyable" even if there are complications en-route.


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