A business plan that just clicked

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f Bruce and Yaling Fisher had listened to popular opinion three years ago they never would have opened Honolulu-based Hawaii Aloha Travel. "Everyone said we were crazy," said Bruce. "There was so much negativity out there."

It's not as though the couple didn't know a thing or two about what could go wrong in business. "I ran a small Internet marketing company that got 'dot-bombed' in 2000," said Bruce. "The Internet business started collapsing around us, and advertising revenue was drying up." Yaling had left a job as a product manager for Fremont, Calif.-based Synnex Corp., a computer hardware distributor, to move to Hawaii to marry Bruce that same year.

However, Bruce and Yaling noticed one bright spot hidden in the collapse of the Internet industry. A travel company with a link on a Web site that Bruce managed was producing an inordinate amount of activity. "We noticed a lot of people booking travel from this site, and that's when we decided to become travel agents," he said, adding that they planned to focus on selling Hawaii to travelers coming from the continental U.S. -- and they would capture that business by using the Internet.

"We knew we couldn't compete with local Hawaii agencies [that sold outbound travel], so we concentrated on bringing people in from the mainland to Hawaii," said Bruce.

They reached out to a variety of Hawaii hoteliers, host agencies and wholesalers. "We found every player in the business," said Bruce, including a host agency Hawaii Aloha Travel uses occasionally for air bookings and nine wholesalers that account for 90% of the agency's business.

The Fishers realized that their business model would demand high volume rather than high ticket sales. "Having the best prices, especially for Internet customers, is key," said Yaling.

She researched and analyzed pricing issues while Bruce investigated ways the agency could lure prospective travelers to Hawaii Aloha's Web site.

"I used the Internet to research all of my competitors' fares and rates," said Yaling. "Once I had that information, I contacted the vendors directly and found out their distribution channels. That led us to more wholesalers competing with each other -- which gives us the opportunity to shop around for the best price and deal."

Yaling conducts comparative cost analysis on a daily basis. Not a single price quote is given to a client until Yaling ensures that it is the best price available.

"We compete with Hotwire and Orbitz," she said, "and 90% of the time I can beat any price a person can find on the Internet. If I can't beat it, I can match it."

Bruce, meanwhile, studied search engines and how they rank Web sites. He knew one thing for sure: In order to be successful Aloha Hawaii's Web site would have to appear high in the search engine listings. By meticulously researching the three major search engine sites -- Google, MSN and Yahoo -- he discovered he could code his sites to make them even more search engine friendly.

He also made a concerted effort to keep pace with the changes in search engine technology. "The search engines use very sophisticated algorithms and logic designed to give the end user relevant information," he said.

By keeping pace with technology, Bruce has been "able to keep Hawaii Aloha's Web site rankings consistently in the top five for major keywords that bring us qualified customers." Each of the agency's five Web sites is designed to attract specific search engines and search-engine users.

Hawaii Aloha Travel also uses "pay-per-click" marketing strategy whereby it pays for every click that a search engine sends the agency's way.

Although clients' first encounter with Hawaii Aloha Travel is on the Internet, the sale is closed voice to voice by either Bruce or Yaling. "We know that agencies have to provide excellent service," Bruce said. But even before the voice contact, clients are provided with an abundance of travel information and services on the site, including a live chat room where they can receive instant quotes.

"When a user comes to our site we can engage them in a live chat session, or they can request a chat session by clicking an icon on the site," said Bruce, adding that the Web sites' sales conversion from the live chat feature is quite high.

All things considered, the Fishers, who run the agency without any staff, believe they have a bright future in the agency business. Last year, Hawaii Aloha Travel produced $1.5 million in volume, and the Fishers expect to bring in at least $2 million this year.

The couple said some of their supplier partners have commended them for thinking outside the box. But, as Bruce is quick to point out, "We were never in the box in the first place."

The Perfect Itinerary
Reefs and rain forests in Australia

abrielle Warncke, an Australia specialist affiliated with Central Travel in Toledo, Ohio, is an expert in designing highly sophisticated South Pacific itineraries. This trip is a portion of 21-day itinerary.

Day 1

Clients stay at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney's Rocks District, a 19th-century village. They'll be treated to sweeping views of Sydney's harbor from their hotel rooms. The day begins with a walking tour of the district, complete with a private guide. Travelers then stroll to Harbour Bridge for a three-and-a-half-hour climb to its apex.

Clients will attend a performance at the Sydney Opera House after dinner in Darling Harbour. The venue for lunch is the Harbour Kitchen in the Park Hyatt Sydney, which is located under the Harbour Bridge. Lunch is followed by an hour-long helicopter tour of the city. That evening, clients dine at Jordan's Seafood Restaurant in Darling Harbour and then attend a performance at the Sydney Opera House.

DAYS 2, 3 and 4

Clients fly from Sydney to Proserpine for a cruise aboard a ProSail yacht or catamaran that explores the Great Barrier Reef's Whitsunday Island. A chef prepares all meals onboard. "Clients may have the opportunity to help plot the course they sail, including where they might want to stop for snorkeling or diving -- or for a picnic lunch on a deserted island," said Warncke.

Day 5

Clients fly into Cairns and drive an hour-and-a-half to the Daintree Rainforest near Port Douglas. Accommodations for the evening are at the 50-room Silky Oak Lodge in the rain forest. Guests can choose to stay in Treehouse accommodations or Riverhouse accommodations located on the Mossman River.

During a four-wheel-drive tour of the rain forest, clients will visit the Mossman Gorge, where they can take a swim or join the driver in a rain forest walk. They then travel on to the Daintree River for a river cruise. The guide will help travelers spot wildlife, including birds, snakes, frogs, flying foxes and crocodiles.

Clients then hike up to the Alexander Range Lookout for stunning panoramic views of the area, followed by lunch in a tropical orchard. That evening, dinner is an entertainment event called "Flames of the Forest," which takes place on the edge of the Daintree Rainforest and includes native performances that vary by night. Hors d'oeuvres, champagne and a three-course meal are served under the stars in a forested area lighted by candles.

Hand in Hand
At her Service

ven though Darlene Ravin is an Argentina specialist, she insists that she wouldn't look nearly so good in the eyes of her clients if it weren't for City Service Travel, a Buenos Aires wholesaler that serves as a Virtuoso on-site partner.

Ravin, a Virtuoso agent who is an independent contractor affiliated with Andavo Vacations & Cruises in Greenwood Village, Colo., credits a City Service sales rep, Connie Garcia Villaverde, for helping her build her business.

"Unless you live in Argentina you don't have the inside knowledge of how the country works," said Ravin.

Special requests are a breeze with Villaverde's help, Ravin said.

"I had Orthodox [Jewish] clients from New York who were traveling to Buenos Aires and wanted to be able to walk to temple on Saturdays," she said. "How would I know which hotels are close enough to walk to the synagogue?"

A Colorado agent relies on a Buenos Aires wholesaler to be her eyes and ears in Argentina. Above, Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Villaverde knew exactly where the clients should stay. "She recommended not only the best hotel in Buenos Aires but also the closet one to a synagogue."

Other clients wanted to take an intercountry wine tour via car. "They wanted to drive through Mendoza [Argentina], through the Andes to Santiago, Chile," said Ravin.

That idea was quashed when Villaverde pointed out that car rental firms will not permit their cars to cross national borders, Ravin said.

Ravin sends City Service an e-mail with an itinerary request, which Villaverde prices out for her. "Once it's accepted by the clients, Villaverde confirms all the ground arrangements and the hotels," she said.

For her part, Villaverde believes her extensive product knowledge keeps her on top of her game. She and other City Service staff meet twice a month to share tourism news, including hotel and destination development.

She and other staff continuously travel throughout the country, visiting all its regions and properties to ensure they're one step ahead of any developments.

In the end, she said, she serves the client. "Agents are our clients."

Hand in Hand highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to Agent Life editor Claudette Covey at [email protected].

Marc My Words
Damage control

our clients' vacation is supposed to be a fantasy come true. But sometimes, despite your best efforts and meticulous planning, things go wrong. Perhaps the hotel loses the reservation. Perhaps the cruise ship is delayed in port for repairs. It could be anything -- and it could turn a client's fantasy vacation into a bitter disappointment.

Moreover, complaints may be a big factor in today's unpredictable travel environment.

Marc Mancini.Your clients' natural instinct will be to come to you for satisfaction -- even when they know you aren't at fault. You can't turn back the clock. But there are things you can do:

Fix your clients first. Focus your first efforts on their feelings. The problem they encountered created emotions that must be addressed. Reassure them that you're on their side and that you share their frustration.

Listen. Offer them the opportunity to vent. Resist the temptation to give a logical explanation. At this point, that isn't what they need.

Acknowledge their feelings. Let them know you understand and express agreement with valid complaints. Unreasonable demands can be handled later, when emotions cool.

Ask for details. As the clients begin to feel you're on their side, get clarification of any points you're unclear about. Then summarize the problem to be certain you really understand what went wrong.

Propose a solution. In most cases, if a supplier is at fault, you'll need to contact the supplier to help craft an appropriate solution. Let your clients know that you'll make finding a solution a priority.

Thank your clients. You want them to know that you care about the quality of the products you recommend and that their complaint has actually been valuable to you.

Marc Mancini is one of the industry's best-known speakers and consultants. He teaches at West Los Angeles College.

5 Things
To highlight your value as a travel agent

1.Show what you know. Continuing education is of enormous value to the agent, according to Peter Friedman, a luxury travel consultant with Unique Travel in Delray Beach, Fla. "Your expertise is why the client walks in the door in the first place. If you don't have at least the knowledge of travel they do, then you are doomed to failure."

2.Provide quality service. Give the client your full attention, keeping initial meetings relaxed and unrushed. "Take time to profile your clients," said Friedman. Find out what types of vacations they have taken in the past, and what they liked and disliked about them. And if you don't know the answer to a question, don't fake it. "The savvy client will know you're faking the answer," said Friedman. "It's OK not to be perfect. If you fake an answer, you've lost the client."

3.Illustrate your cruise knowledge. "Value for clients is getting what they want -- not what they think they want," said Friedman. "A client rarely knows what they really want," he added, and cruise clients are no exception. Once you determine their needs, explain how, for a minimal cost increase, clients can upgrade to a higher category of cruise line. Describe the features of the more upscale line and how those features are worth the fare increase.

4.Illustrate your knowledge of land tours. "The skill of reading a tour brochure, and what it really means, is not something a layman can do really well," Friedman said. For instance, only experienced agents can interpret such details as which destinations or attractions on an itinerary are drive-bys and which are actual visits.

5.Explain the services you provide that Web suppliers often can't deliver on. "Stress to clients that the Internet cannot help clients solve any problems before, during or after their vacation," said Friedman. "We had a situation at Unique Travel where an airline ticket was issued in November and the airline inadvertently canceled the reservation. Because the ticket was booked through the agency, we were able to rectify the situation." A client booking online might not be as fortunate, he said.

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