By William Kaempffer, Register Staff Photos by Robert Luciani
So even as the women at Alcorn State were still celebrating their first-ever NCAA bids and the men of Notre Dame still mourning their absence, travel agents at Worldtek on Water Street were already deciding how to relocate nearly 10,000 people from 128 different teams with less than 48 hours notice.
"The skill level of these agents is high," said Worldtek Travel's Collegiate Department Manager Robert Luciani, surveying a roomful of travel agents, runners, and airline reps Sunday. "It's not a night you want to cut your teeth as an agent."
In an era when someone is always the "official" something of something, Worldtek is the official travel agent of the NCAA and has been for 19 years.
The New Haven agency has been booking travel plans for the college sports organization under contract since 1981. Last year, they signed a new deal that will keep the NCAA for another five years.
Sunday was crunch day in the office. The bids for the women's 64–team tournament were announced shortly after 5 p.m. and the men's 64 teams were announced an hour later. So travel agents were standing by for the flood of calls from athletic directors and school bigwigs trying to book flights from places like Appalachian State to places like Birmingham, Ala.
Or in Illinois' case, places like Champaign to Kansas City, Mo.
Travel Agent Lynda McHenry was helping Dana from the University of Illinois in booking a flight for the school's contingency of some 85 athletes, coaches, trainers, equipment managers, band members, cheerleaders, and university VIPs.
Now, the problem with the airport in Champaign is it's small. The largest commercial plane that could get them to Kansas City, McHenry explained, was a 45-seat turboprop but some seats were already booked. Plus there would be a layover.
Could you take a bus to Indianapolis, 113 miles to the east, and fly from there, McHenry asked. How about Chicago? No? Let's see about chartering a plane.
In all, the agency will book 128 teams for flights in the next 48 hours, according to Worldtek Director of Sports Operations Karen LaRose.
Each school can send 75 people at the NCAA's expense. That translates to some 9,600 people, she said.
"It's very challenging," she said.
Since the bids aren't announced until four days before the first game is played, the agency doesn't know which teams will make it or where they might play, she said.
LaRose said they try to get some information in advance from schools hopeful about making the tournament with contact names and numbers, a roster of the people who would travel, and the weight of the band equipment.
First, the agents try to book on existing commercial flights. Representatives from the airlines were on hand Sunday to help if logjams occurred. Chartering a flight is the last resort, LaRose said. Not all schools in the tournament come from airline hubs with plenty of flight choices. "It's not like we're flying everyone from Chicago to L.A.," LaRose said.
All said Worldtek Travel books travel arrangements for 79 sports in the NCAA's three divisions.
But the basketball tournament is always the most stressful, she said.
Company officials expect the agents back today at 7 a.m. and they'll stay until probably midnight.
But company Vice President David Smith said the agency has an unblemished record of which even UConn would be envious. "We've never gotten a team to the tournament late," he said.