A blessing in disguise

hen the tide turned with airline commissions, Rhonda Maroney, owner of Help Me Rhonda Travel in Chatsworth, Calif., like many agency owners, decided she had to find a way to make the transition from corporate to leisure travel.

It was a daunting task, but a sprinkling of magic came at the right time to help her along.

"I had a five-year goal," said Maroney. "I had various ways to get from corporate to leisure. One way I never thought of was to have someone pay for the whole thing."

Finding out that the building which housed her agency was to face the wrecking ball proved to be a good thing for owner Rhonda Maroney. Maroney began her travel industry career in 1978 as a reservationist with Continental before moving over to the agency side.

Maroney worked as a quality-control liaison between the front office and back-office accounting at one agency and managed another for about three years.

Then she opened her own shop in Los Angeles, bringing in many of the clients she had worked with over the years.

The agency's location, on the second floor of an office building, was not good for walk-in business.

"The building was owned by a slumlord," Maroney said. "You couldn't get anyone to come in."

But Maroney persevered, and Help Me Rhonda Travel became established through its corporate business.

And then the caps and cuts came.

Maroney knew that corporate travel would no longer provide the livelihood it had before.

"I knew I had to rearrange my thinking and get out of corporate travel," said Maroney.

Then the solution came as if it had fallen from the sky.

One day, someone from the city came into the agency and said a new library was going to be built on the land where Maroney's agency was located.

The city was going to declare eminent domain and demolish the office building.

"I didn't realize the implications at first," she said. "I didn't know [the city] had to reimburse you."

Indeed, not only would the city of Los Angeles be responsible for Maroney's relocation costs, but, if Maroney's new rent increased, it would reimburse her the difference for two years.

"I happened to see this one property," said Maroney.

It was smaller than her other office, but the space consideration was practically moot because it was in a train station. This spot had pedestrian traffic.

"It's not like Union Station or Grand Central Station," said Maroney. "It's smaller.

"[The owners] had trouble getting retail in here," said Maroney. "There's not [a tremendous amount of] traffic, but it's fine for us."

On Oct. 13, the agency moved into the train station in Chatsworth.

Maroney found that her corporate clients could be served on the phone from this location just as easily as from the other.

Help Me Rhonda is now cultivating a walk-in clientele, enabling Maroney's leisure business to pick up its pace.

-- David Cogswell

A bit more magic

here was a little magic involved when Rhonda Maroney, owner of Help Me Rhonda Travel in Chatsworth, Calif., established her first agency location, too.

Back when she worked for other agencies, starting her own agency was a dream, but to make it real would take a big leap of faith.

"My husband kept telling me he had great faith that I could do my own agency," said Maroney.

Then he came up with a very unusual plan for how to raise the seed money to launch the business.

"He had a Datsun 280Z with a personalized license plate that said 'Viper,' " said Maroney.

"We had heard about someone who went to Hong Kong and made $100,000 selling his license plate because it was all eights, and that's considered lucky [in Chinese culture]."

Maroney and her husband set about trying to find a buyer for the license plate.

"We wrote to Jay Leno; he owns a Viper.

We wrote Johnny Depp, he has the Viper Room bar," she said.

They finally found their buyer in the man who directed the electronics division of Viper Security Systems, a maker of car alarms.

The sale brought in $10,000 plus an agreement under which Viper Security Systems would give Help Me Rhonda its travel business for a one-year trial period.

Extended protection

uch of the need for, and discussion of, travel insurance revolves around the traveler's illness or injury in an accident.

However, coverage can come into play, and provide relief to clients, in other circumstances.

Clients who leave for vacation without travel insurance might pay for a real premium if a disaster, such as severe weather or illness, strikes during the trip. CSA Travel Protection in San Diego provided a number of case histories from its files (with the names changed) as follows:

  • Elizabeth Koll, vacationing in Norway, was forced to return home early due to a family illness.
  • Because she learned this quite late in the day, the KLM and Northwest ticket offices in Bergen, Norway, were closed.

    The insurance company took over making arrangements for the return trip home.

  • Debra Arnold and 20 members of her family rented beach houses in Nags Head, N.C., only to be evacuated when Hurricane Bonnie slammed into the coastline.
  • Insurance coverage allowed them to salvage at least some of their family vacation.

  • George Goldstein and his wife arrived in Rome only to discover that their hotel was in bankruptcy.
  • Insurance covered alternative accommodations.

    The following case history makes another strong point:

    A client purchased travel protection, but not within the seven-day, preexisting-condition exclusion waiver window.

    The client's son, a college student, had a medical condition of which the clients were not aware.

    As a result of this illness, the clients had to cancel their trip.

    The medical ailment was a preexisting condition, and the claim could not be covered, although it would have been if the client had purchased the coverage within seven days of making the initial deposit.

    In talking to the travel agent about this claim, CSA said, "We asked why the agent didn't encourage the client to purchase within the seven-day window. The agent's response? 'It's not my job.' "

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