A double answer

How can you retain good employees? How can you stay profitable despite commission cuts and other challenges?

Perfectly Packed is billed as Linda Robison, president of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Academy Travel & Tours, found that with a little ingenuity, the answers to both questions could be connected.

On the personnel front, "I have always believed that employees find their job more rewarding and are more motivated when they feel they have more control and 'ownership' in their daily work lives and ultimately their career destiny," she said.

How to give this sense of "ownership" to her staff? During the fall of 1999, after the latest commission cut, "it became apparent that alternate revenue sources were needed to remain profitable," Robison said. So she asked her staff to brainstorm ideas with her. Together, they decided to open a retail travel accessory division within the agency.

Robison had an idea on how to get her employees really involved in this new project: forming a limited-liability company, with her staff members each putting in a nominal investment to become partners in the new company. She chose this legal form because "members' financial liability is limited to the amount of their individual investment, so new entrepreneurs aren't quite so nervous about becoming a part of the opportunity," she said.

As the owner of the agency, Robison agreed to give the new company retail space within the agency and lend it start-up funds to purchase inventory and display equipment. Academy's lawyer and accountant had major input about the terms of the deal.

And so Perfectly Packed -- billed as "a retail store for all your travel needs, including foreign currency exchange" -- was opened in time for the holiday gift season.

The result? "Our whole staff truly has a 'vested' interest in the success of our retail shop, so they're excited about working there," she said.

"With employee-owners, I feel that the staff turnover will remain low," Robinson added. "We all knew (and expected) the initial start-up, hard work and costs to be a challenge, but we can also see the great potential in the future."

Keeping staff motivated

It has taken some hard thought for Linda Robison, president of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Academy Travel & Tours, to develop her agency's strategy for keeping good employees, but she knew from the start that motivation was key.

Linda Robinson.Still, because "my employee base is as diversified as my client base, no single answer would motivate and appeal to everyone. I had earlier identified which key employee or employees would be extremely hard to replace and tried to determine what motivated each of them individually," she said. So she began to offer training to each staffer according to "what they liked, not just what we needed."

She had quickly identified Nancy Heck as "not only a great employee but also a natural leader." A few years ago, Heck had been promoted to the position of office manager. "I observed how she quickly grew into this challenging position and helped to increase productivity and overall sales."

For Robison, "the next logical step seemed for me to offer [Heck] a chance to buy in as a minority owner of the company. Earlier this year, we were able to present an offer that I hoped would be good for both of us -- and it was."

For more on how Robison motivated the rest of her staff, see the story above.

A few Web observations

The urgent need to get Web-savvy is clear, if you can believe what you read in the trade and consumer press. Here are some personal observations about this trend:

  • The debate is over. Those who reject the revolution and deny the role the Internet will play in our lives will be described by future generations as travel dinosaurs who once roamed the earth offering "full service" via an obsolete machine rented from airlines.
  • Richard Turen.

  • The minimum technological knowledge you need is the ability to understand about half of what appears in the best-selling computer magazines.
  • Hiring any young employee who does not know more than you do about Web development and the Internet could be a mistake. A good information locator is far more useful than a job applicant who has traveled a bit and wants to travel some more.
  • Want to save big headaches later on? Never, ever, let the same company design your Web site and also control your Web access and storage. Some day, you may want to work with a different design team, and you ought to be able to take your site with you.
  • On your own computer, design a travel home page with updates on topics such as weather, health and politics that might be helpful during your daytime chats with clients.
  • Visit a computer megastore every few months to check out the latest technology and look for new software that may help you in your business. You'll also have a sense of being surrounded by a new kind of consumer with high technology awareness. If you can sell travel to these folks, then you know you're really good.
  • Richard Turen is an industry consultant and travel agency president.

    Contact him at [email protected].

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