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Team travel directors preparing as if there will be a 2011 season

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The people who make all the travel plans for NFL road games are continuing with business as usual even though there's no labor deal.

With one caveat: They're trying to figure out how to write contract clauses not knowing if there will be an NFL season.

NFL travel directors are holding their annual meeting in Nashville along with a trade show that wraps up Tuesday for the hotels, bus companies and airlines that take care of teams on road games. The travel directors are working as if the 2011 season will go off as expected with a new deal reached to end the current NFL lockout.

No teams or hotels backed out of this trade show, according to Tracey Leinen, whose company organized the event. She was the Philadelphia Eagles' director of travel operations for 16 years before leaving last May to open her own company, and she said this trade show is a yearly event.

"It is more critical this year than ever before," Leinen said.

"For example, how do they develop contract clauses not knowing if there's going to be a season or not? That's the main topic with everybody right now. How best to move forward? We've gone to the NHL to ask them questions on how they dealt with their lockout, but for the most part, this is the first time around for a lot of these people."

A single road trip involves lots of advance reservations. Moving players, a coaching staff and support personnel means a team's travel party can range from 135 to as many as 200 people for 10 road games, with each trip costing up to $1 million. That price goes higher for East Coast teams heading West, or vice versa.

"These employees provide a valuable service to the team's operation," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "Their playbook is thick, and they are often forced to call more audibles than their quarterback."

Travel directors start signing contracts to block off rooms, reserve buses and charter planes once the NFL schedule is released each April. Considering most teams fly out less than 12 hours before kickoff, precision planning is required and can't wait for a labor deal to be reached.

"We're going ahead as the 2011 season will happen, and the only difference is we are not talking to free agents right now," New York Giants owner John Mara said during the NFL Annual Meeting in New Orleans. "Yes, that goes for all preparations for the offseason, training camps, preseason, everything."

With the NFL bringing in more than $9 billion per year, any team waiting for a new collective bargaining agreement before making plans would be foolish.

Any last-second traveler knows that means paying a premium for flights and hotel rooms. That doesn't count training camps, where teams house 85 players and feed them at least three times per day, not counting snacks.

"You don't ever want to get caught behind or unprepared, so you do things the same as ever," Miami Dolphins spokesman Harvey Greene said. "We plan for there to be the season. Otherwise, you could be caught scrambling and fall behind. If we need to make adjustments, just like at any other time, we'll make adjustments."

Players and owners are high profile enough that reporters camped out last weekend for the NFL Players Association's meeting in Florida and in New Orleans for the owners' session that started Sunday.

The team travel directors? Most teams send only one person each year to this annual meeting, and they don't need name tags to recognize each other. These are the people who prefer not to be seen or heard, working in the background to ensure teams hit the road without a glitch.

"No news is good news in this business," Leinen said. "If you don't hear anything, that means it's a smooth trip. If your name's out there, anything could've been wrong."

They learn tips from colleagues on how to make road trips easier or smoother. The 179 vendors pitch their services eager to book business, and that's why some representatives didn't want to talk about what the NFL lockout could mean in lost revenue. Everyone is working under the premise that a labor deal will be reached early enough to avoid disruptions.

"We are hoping the schedule will be released on time and the season will start on time," Leinen said. "To start to make any adjustments or anything else, I think it's a little too premature."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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