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Truffles with a side of travel

New lounge-travel agency hybrid aims to change the way Austinites book trips

Jennifer Emmons Blackman walked into Departure Lounge last fall to buy a truffle and an Americano. Six months later, she’s been back at least a dozen times, using their services not just for caffeine and chocolate but also to plan both her honeymoon in Morocco and her bachelorette party in San Francisco.

“I work two blocks away, and I could see from the street that there was a coffee bar and wine bottles — it was very intriguing,” said Emmons Blackman, director, sales and operations for Outbox Inc. “I thought it was a cool lounge. I had no idea it was a travel agency.”

That is exactly what founder and director Keith Waldon had in mind when, last fall, he opened Departure Lounge, a hip, inviting downtown space that functions as both a lounge/coffee bar and a travel agency.

“When you talk to people about travel, you’re usually at a dinner party, someone else’s house, at a bar,” Waldon said. “I wanted to create a very social space that had good food and beverage offerings that also had a visually stimulating space for travel.”

The concept could have made for an awkward combination. But Waldon’s 28 years in the travel industry, including 17 as part of the Virtuoso luxury network, taught him that he needed to get creative if he wanted to compete with the online discount travel sites and court a growing population of people who have never set foot inside a travel agency.

“I always thought travel agencies were for people who weren’t very savvy navigating online travel sites or for people from a different generation,” said Emmons Blackman, 38. “From a business standpoint, what Departure Lounge is doing makes a lot of sense, and they do it in a way that is so novel and sophisticated and elegant.”

The space is infused with subtle travel undertones, from a wine list featuring bottles from around the globe, sorted by country and offered on an iPad, to TVs broadcasting images from destinations such as Thailand, India and the Galapagos Islands. Those TVs also offer touch-screen surveys that help potential travelers focus their interests.

“We have a five-minute visual survey that tells the person what kind of traveler they are. If a married couple comes in and they’re going to be traveling together, we have them do it individually and we look at the outcomes to see about compatibility,” Waldon said, adding that one person might be most interested in art while another might be focused on outdoor adventure. “If they aren’t exactly compatible, we’ll split them up on day three or day four — at least a portion of the day. It kind of works like a reset button on the trip.”

Emmons Blackman said she and her husband already had settled on Morocco for their honeymoon and used the Departure Lounge advisers to book their flights and beef up the itinerary they already had planned.

“They got us much better airfare than we had been able to source on our own using My husband was impressed by that,” said Emmons Blackman. “It really appealed to both of our sensibilities.”

Waldon said 99 percent of his clients have not worked with a travel adviser before. In addition to couples, he said he frequently helps families, girlfriends and single women plan trips. The hottest destinations at the moment include Western Europe, Southeast Asia, Central America and British Columbia.

Emmons Blackman said she and her husband already have their sights set on another destination — Portugal. Her advice? Go into the lounge for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and see where it goes from there.

“I think there are people who go in there that have no idea that they’re a travel agency because it’s so subtle,” she said. “It’s like this discovery experience. You go in and are surrounded by beautiful places — it plants a seed. Maybe you go in for a truffle or a pastry or a coffee but you start thinking, ‘I want to plan my next trip.’ What better way to get started than when you’re there?”

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