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Travel Agent to the Stars

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Before leaving for Italy, Suns director of travel services Jill Mueske sat down with to discuss her role in Training Camp 2006.
(Jeramie McPeek/Suns Photos)
Behind the scenes of training camp 2006
Travel Agent to the Stars

By Brad G. Faye,
Posted: Sept. 29, 2006

Organizing a weekend trip across state for a family of four can be hard enough, but organizing a trip across the globe for 77? With passports to acquire, flights to schedule and hotels to book, not to mention tours to plan and dinners to be reserved, the Phoenix Suns' director of travel services Jill Mueske has had her hands full of late.

Mueske, who has been with the Suns' organization for nearly 10 years, is responsible for assuring that the team's adventures away from the US Airways Center go off without a hitch. Her most recent assignment -- the team's upcoming training camp voyage to Italy -- has been her most difficult to date, and one which has required countless long hours for her and her staff. Still, she managed to take some time out of her demanding schedule recently to discuss the preparations with and share some great travel stories from the past. It would appear that you've had a hectic schedule these past few weeks in preparation for the big trip. Can you talk about what it's been like for you and your staff?

Mueske: Very busy. For instance, this morning I was up at 3:30 a.m. to be on a 4 a.m. conference call with the hotel we’re staying at in Italy. Because there’s a nine-hour time difference, I have to be available when they’re available. Sounds like you may be on Italy time already.

Mueske: Very much so. To get things accomplished, you have to be in their mindset. You have a different culture, you have different processes and different business etiquettes that are followed over there, and you have to adjust to that quickly. But, you know, if you’re kind and you let them know what you need and you’re genuine, I’ve found that they are extremely helpful and extremely courteous. Is this the toughest project you’ve had to put together?

Mueske: Absolutely, absolutely. I can compare it to when I first started here nine years ago and they asked me to develop a travel department. They had no technology and they were using seven different travel agencies, so I can compare it to that. But I’ve got timelines and deadlines now, so that changes the dynamics of everything. How has this compared to your yearly task of putting together the Suns' travel schedule for the entire NBA season?

Mueske: Well, putting the season together is a very methodical process. You do the same thing every single time. You may have a couple changes to hotels or the personnel that you’re working with, but with this trip, you’ve got so many other variables. You’ve got a time change, a culture change and you’ve got an understanding change. For example, what a gala dinner means to us here means something totally different to them over there. We’re going to be meeting with some VIPs from the U.S. Embassy and are looking to bring some U.S. troops over for some games. A lot of that is being facilitated by the NBA, but we've still got to consider attire, weather, passports, there are just a lot of differences. How closely has the NBA worked with you to insure everything goes according to plan?

Mueske: This (NBA Europe Live) is their program. There are three other teams (Clippers, Sixers, Spurs) which have been invited to hold training camps overseas, as well. Our role as a team is just to facilitate everything, so that it will run smoothly. But it’s certainly been more work than anyone here within the organization anticipated. How many cities will the Suns be visiting on this trip?

Mueske: We will be traveling to three different cities. We will land in Treviso, where the team will train. Our ownership group, which is going with us, will be staying in Venice for the duration of the camp. Then we all travel into Rome for a game (Oct. 6), and then we travel into Cologne, Germany for two more games (Oct. 10-11). Have you had any last-second additions to the traveling party? How many are you expecting to fly out at this time?

Mueske: Not many. We’ve added some additional staff at the last minute, only because we’ve had some openings from the original list. But I think we’re at 77 actually traveling now and each segment of the trip has a different number of people. How much more complicated is that, having some people that are only along for parts of the trip?

Mueske: We have so many deviations and because of the TSA requirements, the manifest has to be accurate. There is no room for any errors. And that’s another hard part. You have different manifests, and different hotels for each set up. And then we’ve got a water feature. The owners are in Venice and to get anywhere in Venice you’ve got to leave by a water taxi and then get on a motor coach or use a train. So we’ve got planes, trains and automobiles for this trip.

You know, it’s kind of like baking a turkey – you put it in the oven and it’s done when you come home. It's inevitable that we’re going to have some glitches, but we won’t really know them until we get over there. What would you say you like most about your job?

Mueske: You know, it’s never the same. Every single day is different, and just when you think you can’t get a more goofy or outrageous story, somebody tops it. I can tell you it’s only travel and I know a lot of people are very passionate about it. I’m very passionate about it, too, but then I also see the lighter side of it. What I’m doing is not life or death.

There’s no room for error, of course, and being on call 24 hours a day certainly keeps things interesting. I get paged if there’s a mechanical error on a plane, if somebody’s guest doesn’t get into a room. We’ve had players stuck in elevators. You know, we had a player last year that had a child get sick at the Ritz Carlton and he called me to find a pediatrician for him. How that’s related to travel I’m not sure, but you never know what you're going to be called upon to help with. It’s truly 50 percent luck and 50 percent skill, but you have to have all those resources at your fingertips, because whatever you’re doing has to be done immediately. Most things can’t wait a week, because of what this business is. Can you share any of the goofy or outrageous stories?

Mueske: I've gotten calls from hotels, because players have left behind their PlayStations or their clothes. I remember once the team was in Chicago leaving for New York. The hotel calls me – whenever they call I cringe – to tell me that Joe Johnson had left behind everything. Everything! "Joe what do you want us to do with it?" We ended up having to have somebody from the hotel go upstairs, put all the stuff into luggage and get clearance for a driver to take it to the arena in Chicago, so we can eventually get it loaded onto the team bus. We hear you've arranged for the transportation of everything from tires to bodies?

Mueske: Yes, there was a coach with one of the other teams that we work for that passed away and the team was having challenges getting the actual body onto a flight to get him to the city where he’d be buried. So we got the call and, because of our relationship with America West, we were able to transfer the body from the funeral home onto a plane to get him to the city he was being buried in. And the tires?

Mueske: The tires... Horacio Llamas, when he was playing for us, his family lived in Mexico City and was rather poor. So Horacio would send numerous household items, as well as other things to them. His dad needed tires sent down to Mexico City and I just happened to be at the airport when he was flying out. Here he comes with these tires on a rolling cart, as if he was going to bring them on the plane. So we helped him arrange to have the tires shipped. Can you talk about the aliases that the Suns use when traveling?

Mueske: (Laughs) We’ve had Scooby Doo and Frodo Baggins in past years, a whole host of characters. The alias is just part of professional sports. I actually had a player once who wanted to go by a different alias in each and every single city. I said "No, I’m not going to manage your personal life. You need to have one alias." To be a female in a predominately man’s world and be telling someone who’s making perhaps millions of dollars, that you can’t manage their request, you don’t know what the reaction’s going to be. But he was okay with it. Do the guys give much thought to their aliases?

Mueske: I think so. Some of them pick another athlete, maybe an icon. It can get confusing, though, because with some of the aliases, the last name could also be a first name. We have an alias which I’m sure I’ve biffed several times because it’s a rapper and I only know country music (laughs). It could be defeating the purpose by selecting a celebrity name as an alias, though. We had one player once who used the alias of an athlete in another sport, whose season was identical to the Suns and could potentially have been at the same hotel. The reception you receive from the players when they see you is impressive. They seem genuinely grateful whenever you've flown in ahead of time and have taken all the steps to make sure they get settled in comfortably. What does their appreciation mean to you?

Mueske: You know what, it speaks volumes, it really does. Because this is kind of a hidden function of the organization and they only see the end product. It’s certainly a good feeling. I’m actually going to be flying out ahead of the team again on this trip. I’ll be on the ground for three days with the NBA prior to everybody else arriving on Saturday. You've obviously seen a lot of players come and go over the years. Can you talk about the relationships you’ve built with the numerous players you’ve met?

Mueske: You know, it’s different with each player because you’re going to interact with them in a different way. For a lot of them I’m like their mother, because I’m so much older than them. A lot of them are young enough to be my sons (laughs). But I can tell you they are always respectful, they are always extremely grateful because what we have here as an in-house travel department, which is very unique within the NBA. I’ve worked with different players and wives, who didn’t have those resources available from the other teams that they came from. I’ve got what we call the "batphone," a special number that comes in and if I don’t answer it pages me. Some of them need to use that a little bit more discretely (laughs).

Do I have some favorites? Yes, but just because I’ve gotten to know them better more than anything. I can tell you that whenever I see them, it’s not a handshake, it’s a hug. A lot of the players don’t know my last name, some others may know me by name, but have never seen me. Do you ever get any unique requests for anything from players or coaches?

Mueske: I don't know if you would call it unique, but Coach (Mike) D'Antoni has to have Diet Dr. Pepper waiting for him at the hotel. But most of the requests don’t come until you’re on the ground and you’ve got to be reactive to it. You can do some proactive stuff but most of it is being in a reactive mode. It’s similar to the playoffs – you know when they’re going to happen but it’s that last culmination of everything cohesively coming together that is a bit crazy. Last question, what are some of the places you’ve traveled that most impressed you?

Mueske: You know, to be honest, I don’t like to travel (laughs). I just got a passport last year for the first time. I don’t like to travel that much, because I have a family, two kids, and I have another job when I leave here as a jazzercise instructor.