During more than 50 years as a travel agent, Eileen Umhoefer has seen her fair share of clients miss their flights because of bad weather, time changes and other travel glitches.
But only one didn't make his flight because he was stuck in a brothel on Colfax Avenue.
"Well, that I knew of, anyway," she says.
It was 1979, and the United Mine Workers had hired her Denver-based agency to booked 2,000 flights — yes, you read that right — in September for their December UMWA Constitutional Convention in downtown Denver.
"Talk about trial by fire," says Umhoefer. "September! For December! They had to fly back on December 22. Even to get the planes, good heavens. And you can't imagine how many Smiths and Joneses there were. I can't believe I kept them all straight."
In the end, they were all home in time for Christmas. Except that one.
"Not sure whatever happened to him," she says.
It's been a storied career, to be sure, for the Chicago native who started working for the 3,000-employee Ryerson Steel in 1963, "right out of school, as the secretary I'd trained to be," until one day the boss asked her to take over the task of getting the employees' travel arrangements squared away.
"The woman who ran the travel company just up and disappeared," Umhoefer says. "So they sent me to a half-day of what was called 'ticketing school.' Back then, the tickets were still handwritten. The airlines ran the schools, so I went to learn from American Airlines. And that was what I did for the company from then on until I left."
Umhoefer booked a lot of train tickets, too — back then, more travelers took the train from Chicago to Denver than airplanes, and "they would go to Colorado Springs and stay at the Broadmoor," she says, "which was such a lovely way to travel" — and at some point, a friend convinced her that she should move to Denver to become a travel agent.
"I didn't even know what a travel agent was or that there was such a thing," she said.
On the way, she stopped in Overland Park, Kan., to attend a weeklong travel agency training program put on by now-defunct Trans World Airlines. "We're still talking about the time of handwritten tickets, remember," Umhoefer says. "There were no computers. There was no way of 'looking things up.' You called people to ask them things. You called every airline each time to find out what they were offering."
Umhoefer wound up in a tiny agency inside the Brown Palace Hotel in 1969 called Murray-Hawkinson Travel, which specialized in an unusual destination for that time — or any time, for that matter: Papua New Guinea.
"To this day, I have no idea how we made any money," Umhoefer says. "People would come in and ask for something mundane like Mexico, and it was, 'No, sorry,' and they went right back out the door. Mostly we just concentrated on two big trips a year, and mostly in the South Pacific. But it was a magical time in the travel industry, and it was fun to watch it all unfolding."
Over the years, Umhoefer worked for several other travel agencies, eventually owning and selling a few of her own. These days, she calls the 48-year-old Bonnie Brae Travel on East Exposition Avenue her home, and she is proud that she has weathered an industry that had some very lean years.
"Back in the heyday, there were travel agencies on every corner," she says. "Now, all these years later, where are all the travel agencies? There were three in our building at one point. There were 200 downtown alone. Now you think you're calling this big airline, you're actually being outsourced and calling someone sitting in their basement. But there is still someone there."
Umhoefer says that the American Society of Travel Agents reports that there are more than 10,000 travel agency firms in the United States, operating in more than 15,000 locations, with more than $146 billion in annual travel sales. "That still represents about half of the travel sold," Umhoefer says. "We've been a bit upset about things like our own president, you know, when Obama recently said, 'We don't have travel agents,' just because you don't see us everywhere, doesn't mean we're not out there.
"Don't count us out yet."
Kyle Wagner: 303-954-1599, email@example.com or twitter.com/kylewagnerworld