A business-savvy niche expert

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hen Sylvia Berman acquired Post Haste Travel in 1980, it was bleeding money to the tune of $15,000 a year. The prior owner of the Hollywood, Fla.-based agency was, as Berman put it, a wonderful agent but a terrible businesswoman. "She was the best travel agent in the business -- if you were the client," Berman said.

The owner had traveled the world several times over and knew absolutely everything about luxury travel products -- including such details as the names of butlers at international hotels. Her problem was this: "If a client balked at a price, she'd ask how much he was willing to pay, and she'd pay the difference," said Berman.

Suffice it to say Berman is not losing $15,000 a year. To ensure that she would be successful, she had a specific game plan: Each of her agents has one or more niches. Berman's is Africa, which accounts for approximately 10% of the agency's $10 million sales volume.

Other areas of specialization at her agency include the Caribbean; Australia and New Zealand; cruises; Europe; and adventure/ski. All retailers are well traveled, some extremely so; the adventure specialist has been to 260 countries.

"Agents need to know that niche markets make you money," Berman said. "If you specialize, you can work from a net figure and mark it up any way you want." Because Berman and her staff know their destinations so well, they usually don't depend on brochures. Rather, they're able to customize vacations from firsthand experience and strong relationships with on-site tour companies. "We make 10% to 15% if we arrange a trip from a brochure and 22% when we do it ourselves," she said.

For instance, Berman recently booked a trip to Paris, working directly with a Parisian hotelier and a local tour operator who designed customized excursions.

Agents in the office freely share specialist information with colleagues on an as-needed basis. And Berman believes her fellow agency owners could use a dose of this generous spirit. "We don't help each other enough," she said. "I feel it's my job to make other agencies look good. If we did, the industry would have a better image and the client a better trip."

About twice a month, Berman works with other agencies to help them design Africa itineraries. She'll charge the agency a nominal fee if there was some work involved -- but if she simply recommends a tour, she charges nothing. And "if I'm doing an upscale FIT where I talk to the client, I make it financially rewarding for both [agencies]," said Berman.

It takes her all of 15 minutes to qualify Africa clients. In that time, "I can tell them which countries to visit, and why," she said. "I just ask the right questions."

In Berman's view, Africa is a destination for virtually any type of client -- not just one who wants to see wildlife.

"Sometimes one spouse really wants to go to Africa and the other one doesn't," she said. In these cases, she sets up multicountry tours in southern Africa that incorporate safari experiences with cultural activities. She also believes that anyone, regardless of physical limitations, can visit Africa. So Berman retains the services of a small Kenya-based company that she said "can do anything for wheelchair-bound people."

The hardest sell are those clients who only want a 10-day Kenya trip, she said. "If you're going all that way, you have to go to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania," one of the best spots in the world for wildlife viewing, she said. So she insists that clients should spend 14 days in Africa.

Berman has learned to handle myriad objections about the destination. Many travelers believe they'll contract dysentery. "Some people are sure human waste is used to fertilize the soil," Berman said. She counters that objection by asking, "Why would a country endanger its largest source of income by using a product that makes everyone ill?"

Another concern is the threat of terrorism, which was an issue even pre-9/11, when the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998. These days, Berman asks clients if they'd consider visiting New York, reminding them that the U.S. city has been the target of terrorist attacks, and that usually puts the concern to rest.

"I took a group of 16 to Kenya and Tanzania 10 days after the [embassy] bombings," Berman said. "I told them they'd be crazy to cancel -- this was the time the countries would be protected best. Not one person canceled, and [group members] had the time of their lives."

The Perfect Itinerary
Five luxurious days in Italy

ndrea Sertoli, president of specialist travel agency Select Italy in Wilmette, Ill., created a five-day, upscale itinerary that travels between Rome and Italy's Amalfi Coast. The hotels used are a portrait in contrasts: "We can go from the avant-garde in Rome to the more classical on the coast," said Sertoli, who was born and raised in Rome.

The Spanish Steps in Rome are on this week's itinerary. The steps are near a recommended property, the Hotel Aleph.DAY 1

A private driver transports travelers from the airport to the ultra-modern Hotel Aleph. This property, which opened in 2003, is centrally located and represents "the most advanced contemporary trends in Italian hotel design," said Sertoli. The afternoon can be spent visiting such nearby landmarks as the Via Veneto, the Spanish Steps and Via dei Condotti.

Sertoli suggests dinner at Sin Restaurant, the Hotel Aleph's chic eatery.

DAY 2

"Nothing can substitute for the benefit of a privately guided tour when you are in a city so rich in history, art and architecture as Rome," said Sertoli, which is why he strongly recommends that clients use the services of one of the private local guides he work with.

Dinner is at La Pergola, the Rome Cavalieri Hilton's rooftop restaurant, and one of the top establishments in Rome, according to Sertoli.

DAY 3

A private guide will take clients on a half-day tour of the Vatican and its museums. At 5 p.m., Sertoli arranges for a one-hour private Tiber River cruise.

After an aperitif at one of the charming bars on the Piazza del Pantheon, clients dine at Alberto Ciarla, a restaurant well known to locals.

DAY 4

A chauffeur will drive clients to Positano on Italy's Amalfi Coast. En route, there's a stop in Caserta for a guided tour of the Royal Palace of Caserta, one of the grandest of Italy's royal residences.

Accommodations in Positano are at the five-star Le Sirenuse. The afternoon is left free for strolling the town's streets.

The chauffeur then drives clients to the nearby village of Sant' Agata for dinner at Don Alfonso 1890, a restaurant rated three-star by the Michelin guide.

DAY 5

Travelers take a private boat cruise to Capri that includes lunch at a small trattoria of the captain's choosing.

They return to Positano around 4 p.m. to rest before traveling to Ravello to watch the sunset. Dinner in Ravello is at the Hotel Palazzo Sasso's restaurant, Rossellini's.

Hand in Hand
Captain of cruise sales

ruise ship captains are arguably great seamen, but if a cruise line is really lucky, it will employ a captain who's also a great salesman. Such is the case with Dag Dvergastein, captain of the Radisson Seven Seas Voyager, which entered service in 2003.

"If you've sailed on Radisson, you've met Captain Dag," said Marge Fenstad, co-owner of Dallas-based Eagle Travel. "Like most people, we [she and her husband, Orval, co-owner of the agency] fell instantly in love with him. He's just electric. You can't forget the guy."

The Fenstads knew the captain would be ideal in helping the agency promote luxury cruising. With the help of Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, they threw a cruise event at Dallas' Stonebriar Country Club, with the captain as featured guest. The affair, which drew 125 attendees, promoted a Norwegian fjord sailing aboard the Voyager, a trip that was marketed as a return to the captain's Norwegian homeland.

Radisson's Seven Seas Voyager entering the port of Nice, France.Radisson Sevens Seas director of sales Barbara Staiger attended the event. "Captain Dag invited guests to join him on the sailing," said Staiger.

"There was a great synergy in the room between the guests who have sailed with us and the guests who have never sailed," Staiger said. In short, past guests were "selling" prospective passengers on Radisson.

Fenstad said the promotion resulted in at least $100,000 in sales revenue for the agency. Guests particularly liked the offer of $100 shipboard credit and roundtrip airport transfers if they booked within 10 days, she said.

She credited Radisson for playing a pivotal role in the promotion's success. "My sales reps from luxury lines are an extension of my staff," she said. "It's very important that we have a good working relationship."

Added Staiger: "Eagle Travel is very proactive in marketing. They don't wait for the business to come to them -- they go out and find the business."

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
The write stuff

ave you noticed how many spelling or syntax errors occur in e-mail? Do you find that little mistakes now creep even into authoritative publications like major city newspapers and national magazines?

Welcome to our post-literate world. A faith in spell/grammar checks, as well as the dominance of visual media, has eroded our ability to write.

But here's the rub: When we detect a mistake in someone else's writing, we conclude that the person isn't very professional.

Marc Mancini.

Here are four easy ways to be certain that your writing -- whether to clients or suppliers, or even for promotional pieces -- is received and read the way it should be:

Talk to the reader. Think about how you'd say it in person, and strive for the that same informal, friendly and conversational style. Keep your sentences short and use contractions, and rely on warm and personal words, like you, we and I.

Be creative and descriptive. Don't just give your clients a laundry list of vacation components; instead, paint a picture for them. "Relaxing in the tropical sun" sounds much more enticing than "going to the beach."

Make it personal. We all want to be treated as individuals, not just names on a computer list. Even if you need to send a form letter, it's easy to make it seem personal. Use the client's name once or twice in the body of the letter and add a handwritten P.S. at the bottom. Or underline a passage you think would particularly interest the reader.

Carefully proofread what you've written. Nothing spoils the impact of a well-written letter more than a glaring spelling or grammatical error. If you're careless in your writing, clients may think you'll be just as careless with the details of their trips.

Marc Mancini is an industry speaker and consultant who teaches at West Los Angeles College.

5 Things
Ideas for service fees

1. Get a commitment deposit, which applies to the cost of the trip. "Travel agents can no longer afford to spend a great deal of time giving customers advice without a guarantee of being compensated for that time," said Robert Joselyn, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based industry consultant. If you don't get that deposit, it's "like the customer is walking in and shoplifting your product," he said. "They're getting free advice and going elsewhere to buy it for less." Joselyn recommends setting a minimum deposit of $50.

2. Charge a consultation fee of $50 to $75 for cruise bookings. Huge cruise discounts and the trend toward unbundling cruise packages have resulted in lower commissions for agents, said Joselyn. "The cruise consultation fee is small in terms of the total cost of the vacation," he said. In fact, cruise lines often add line items to the final price, so adding an agency processing fee is just adding another item.

3. Charge fees of at least $10 to $15 for booking hotels and rental cars. "Agents have always brought more value to the table by selecting and booking hotels and rentals cars than on the sale of airline ticket," said Joselyn. "Fees are a way to compensate for that [discrepancy]."

4. Corporate agents should use a fully unbundled approach to selling products and services. "You charge the minimum you can for air reservations, and then charge for all other services independently," said Joselyn. Services that can be unbundled include document delivery, management reports and 24-hour emergency services.

5. Corporate agents should charge a "success fee" for vendor negotiations. "If you go to a supplier and negotiate a deal that saves the client money, ask for 25% of the savings," said Joselyn. That means, for example, that agents can earn $250 if they save the client $1,000 during a hotel negotiation.

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