Travel Industry Pioneer Henry Davis Passes Away

A pioneer of the post-war travel industry, Henry Davis died peacefully September 2. Born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn, he made Merrick his home for most of his adult life, and Great Neck after 2005.

In 1966, Davis began the Henry Davis Travel Industry Trade Show, which came to be known by every travel agent in the country. Through the boom years of leisure travel, it was the premier vehicle for the direct flow of quality information to retail agents. 

Davis got his start in 1946 working for the American Automobile Association of New York City. Earning about $20 a week, his first assignment was in the telephone travel department. Before the advent of the interstate highway system and commercial airlines, and when passenger steamships had been requisitioned for military duty, he advised AAA members on questions about the motoring routes and railroads all over the country. Later he  managed the 22-person department. Hunkered down at club headquarters in Manhattan for six nights during the unprecedented blizzard of 1947, Mr. Davis became the voice of the stalled city's automobile situation. He always trained new personnel through the 1950s headed the air, rail, ship and hotel departments, essentially running a large travel agency. 

In 1952, Davis successfully stood up to prejudiced superiors, breaking the “color barrier” in order to ensure equal service to club members touring in southern states. Later, he helped oppose other ethnic barriers for tourists traveling to the Catskills and to Bermuda. In 1973, Mayor John Lindsay awarded him the Key to the City of New York, for “helping to preserve the integrity of the city,” after Davis continued his trade show in Manhattan in the face of travel industry fears of race riots.

Davis was also an innovator in the field of budget guidebooks. In 1950, years before the appearance of "Let’s Go" and "Arthur Frommer’s Europe," Davis took over production of an 11-page guidebook titled “How to Make a Little Go a Long Way in New York: A Guide to Free, Inexpensive, and Unusual Entertainment in New York City.” He reorganized and expanded it to 48 pages, and visited hundreds of restaurants, no-cover nightclubs, and odd museums, through multiple editions in the 1950s. He produced a second volume, “Let's Take a Ride” with suggestions for excursions to historic sites, scenic parks, farms and other daytrips from New York City.

After leaving the AAA, Davis was hired to develop a new training program for the American Society of Travel Agents. His work there became the cornerstone of the certification and education program for the industry, the Institute of Certified Travel Agents. He also had short stints in personnel and consulting in the travel industry, as well as in running a travel agency as a partner.

He began his one-person multi-client trade representation businessin 1963, visiting area travel agencies, calling on four to six each day, representing perhaps a dozen travel operations such as tour companies, hotels, and cruise lines. At each agency, Davis would explain the features of his clients, showing maps and photographs, and would deliver travel brochures directly from the trunk of his car. Among his many clients were Bay Roc hotel in Jamaica, Nassau Beach hotel in the Bahamas, Hawaiian Holidays, and Tauck Tours. The Henry Davis Corporation was the original sales force for Carnival Cruises when it began with one ship in 1972; it later grew to carry 3 million passengers a year on 65 ships.

In 1966, began a series of engaging educational seminars, which he provided as another service for his clients. He would train travel agents on destination details that their customers would expect them to know. His Hawaii seminar, for instance, prepped agents on the names of the four major islands, which ones were known for their beaches, which for volcanoes, and so on. The seminars became quite popular as travel agents kept up with the expanding travel plans of American tourists.

The same year saw the debut of the Henry Davis Travel Industry Trade Show—the industry’s first—which came to be known by every travel agent in the country. The first show started with  just twenty exhibitors in Nassau and Queens, and attracted three hundred attendees. By 1970, the show was running in eight locations over ten weeknights and the Henry Davis Corporation had grown to a dozen representatives and six office staff. Over 25 years, the business would construct and operate over 500 trade shows in three dozen American and Canadian cities. Through the boom years of leisure travel, it was the premier vehicle for the direct flow of quality information to retail agents. When Davis sold the business to employees in 1986, total attendance at the Northeast and Midwest shows topped 12,000, with over 130 exhibitors.

As trade show producer, the company developed all the details, from tickets and marketing, to booths and signs. The show’s multi-city itinerary, required complicated logistics. Over three weeks the Northeast show would spend a night each in Boston, Hartford, White Plains, and so on to Philadelphia. Davis took care to cycle booth locations to be fair to each exhibitor. A key component was dissemination of millions of travel brochures, which had to be moved in and out of a hundred booths each night. For this purpose Davis devised a unique wheeled “showboat” –  which would carry heavy boxes of brochures and then convert to a stable table during the show.

Davis’s philosophy ran counter to that of most trade shows. He insisted on having “no outlandish displays” and “no hospitality suites” in order to emphasize face-to-face business between company and travel agent. He wrote, “Travel agents don't like to be pressured, they want to be informed.” He knew  his audience, and human nature. 

Davis employed family members and friends to staff registration tables at each show.  Early on, his sons Fred and Rick collated, stuffed and stamped envelopes for the company. In their teens, they worked as roadies for the trade show, taking down booths late at night in one city and setting them up in the early morning in the next.

In recent years, Davis was sad to see the end of the travel business he knew, as internet sales dramatically reduced retail travel agents’ incomes and airlines made cuts. He wrote, “The travel business is no longer any fun.” 

Henry grew up in Brooklyn during the depression years.  His father ran a printing service, and his mother augmented their income doing beadwork and importing craftwork. He graduated from Erasmus Hall High School. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred three months into his junior year at Brooklyn College. Three weeks before final exams, Davis and his entire graduating class of 1943 wer  called up to serve in World War II. He was not able to attend his college graduation, involved as he was with basic training in Virginia, but his sister Faye informed him he had won the music department prize.

As the result of a bureaucratic bungle, Davis was forced to carry 80 pounds of gear on a double-time march just before being shipped to England. Later he would learn the exertion caused a tear in his intestine, and during the severe weather and seasickness of the Atlantic crossing, Davis developed an ulcer that nearly killed him. Army doctors and the generous hospitality of a British farm family in Devonshire eventually nursed him back to health. Davis maintained a lifelong gratitude to the medical profession; and doctor's often called him the world's most patient patient.

While stationed in his anti-aircraft unit in southern England, Davis began writing and drawing a daily popular cartoon strip called "Strictly Private." Its stick figure soldiers lampooned the fatigue and frustration of army life and Anglo-American relations during the months before D-Day. In his later years, Davis wrote a memoir about the "mundane mortals" and "adventures and misadventures" of his army years, titled “K-Rations, Kilroy, KP, & Kaputt: One GI's War.”

In 2005 he wrote another memoir, “A Funny Thing Happened on My Way Through the Travel Business”, about his business life.

Davis campaigned for civil rights in the south with Rabbi Saperstein of Merrick, and later, on behalf of Soviet Jewis refuseniks at the Long Island Soviet diplomatic compound. In the 1970s he founded a sister-city project between Merrick's Jewish community and Yokneam, Israel, sending ambassadors back and forth and facilitating communication and cooperation between the towns' professionals.

Davis married Audrey Keiles in 1952. Together they raised their two sons, in Hempstead and then Merrick. Davis always would attribute much of his business success to Audrey's wise counsel. He cared for Audrey during a long bout with multiple sclerosis, to which she succumbed in 1983.

In 1988, Mr. Davis married Thelma (Gelman) Tuckel. Always a caring caregiver, Davis nursed her during her lengthy struggle with Parkinson's Disease. She passed away in 1999.

He leaves his two sons: Fred and Lucinda of Medfield, Massachusetts, and Rick of Greenlawn, New York; and five grandchildren Avner, Leon, Andrew, Kiana, and Haley. He leaves two stepchildren Erica and David Wax, and David Tuckel; and stepgrandchildren Rachel and Benjamin. 

He also leaves his sister Faye and Mike Lieman, and sister-in-law Lyn Sipress. He was a devoted and caring uncle of Ben and Le Lieman, Leslie and Micah Sifry, Dorrie Lieman, Ilan Lieman, Steve and Michele Sipress, Fran Sipress and Jeffrey Gruchala; and loving great-uncle to Mira, Jesse, Ethan, Emma, and Jacob. Services were held at Temple Beth-El of Huntington, NY, and burial, with a military honor guard, was at Mount Ararat Cemetery.


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