PHILADELPHIA -- About 2 1/2 years ago, Philadelphia travel agent Hal Rosenbluth fell in love with a small town in North Dakota. The relationship has been blossoming ever since.
By next spring, Mr. Rosenbluth's decision to move some data-processing work of his nationwide travel-management company to Linton, N.D., will evolve into a new line of business. The agency will open a conference center outside the little town for his employees and others who want a really remote setting in which to clear their minds.
In Linton -- population 1,500 -- the travel agency has doubled its operations, from 40 part-time employees in 1988 to 82 full-time workers now. And it expects to have 200 employees by the end of next year.
Besides data processing, the agency plans to use the expanding Linton work force for booking travel reservations, doing accounting work and developing computer programs to help clients manage travel costs.
The office has been unusually successful because of an excellent work force, with high productivity and virtually no turnover or absenteeism, according to Mr. Rosenbluth.
Rosenbluth Travel's conference center, named the Rivery because of its wind-swept setting overlooking the Missouri River, will accommodate about 30 people in rooms furnished like a deluxe hotel.
In another touch of elegance, the center will offer meals prepared by Stuart Tracy, a chef hired from the Sonoma Mission Inn in Sonoma, Calif.
The center also will have meeting rooms with fireplaces, and recreational amenities, including a swimming pool and tennis court. The main building at the conference center will include a wide porch with a sweeping view of the river and surrounding farm and prairie.
But the Rivery also will be distinguished in another important way: how far it is from any of the traditional natural or man-made attractions that meeting planners usually seek out when they want an off-the-beaten-track place to send a small group.
There isn't a beach, a mountain, a resort golf course or the cultural benefits of a major city within hundreds of miles.
"Out there, the attraction is the people of Linton," noted Diane Peters, Rosenbluth's director of corporate development in Philadelphia. "They're great, and they're worth going for."
Instead of resort-type recreation, the Rivery will offer a working farm, which Mr. Rosenbluth will use to teach teamwork and leadership skills to its own employees and those from other companies.
"It's so unspoiled and so pure," Mr. Rosenbluth said. "That's the kind of environment that we think people think best in. There are no distractions. What better place to do blue-sky thinking than in a place with a big blue sky?"
The center's remoteness is part of his experimentation in how to run a travel-management company better, said Mr. Rosenbluth, who represents the fourth generation of his family to run the agency.
The company in recent years has grown into one of the country's biggest agencies, with 371 offices and 2,500 employees. It will have booked more than $1.3 billion in travel for its clients in 1990.
Part of the experiment is to export jobs from major cities, where most of the agency's clients are, to rural areas, where people are eager for work.
Rosenbluth Travel managers are so impressed by the high productivity and quality of North Dakota's work force that they say other businesses deprive themselves of an excellent resource by not locating more operations in rural areas.
Mr. Rosenbluth also said he believes that besides providing his clients with good travel value and good information on travel costs, the company's success can be attributed largely to the way it treats employees, who are called associates, and managers, known as leaders.
By creating a caring, nurturing atmosphere in which employees are encouraged to be friends with co-workers and to work as a team, employees serve customers better, he said.
The agency plans to use the Rivery center for its own management and associate training as well as sharing its philosophy with a growing number of client companies that want to understand the agency's success, Mr. Rosenbluth said.
"Clients are asking to spend time within our company to find out why we have such happy employees," he said.
* The Zagat U.S. Travel Survey, which polls frequent travelers on HTC their favorite restaurants and hotels, has done its first research on car-rental companies and found that the biggest companies get the best service rankings.
Hertz came in first in the rankings, followed closely by Avis, National and Budget. Dollar, Thrifty, Payless and Alamo trailed behind, in that order, with Rent-A-Wreck a very distant ninth.
All the companies were ranked on the basis of service, vehicle condition, convenience of location, car availability and price.
"Although there are relatively few national car-rental companies from which consumers can choose, the best and the worst certainly stand apart from the group," said Tim Zagat, co-publisher with his wife, Nina, of the survey.
"While price is certainly an important factor when choosing a car-rental company, consistency of service and car availability appear to play an even greater role in the selection process."