Debbie Hanauer says the smartest thing she
ever did was listen to her husband, Gary, who believed their
agency, Grueninger Travel Service in Fort Wayne, Ind., should get
more involved with operating charters for gamblers.
In fact, Gary
assigned the casino tours to himself, "primarily for fun," Hanauer
said. That was in the early 1990s. This year, the $6 million agency
will operate 32 gaming charters, relying heavily on an invaluable
database of customers to fill the planes.
Any agency database
is an asset, but this list is especially valuable because
Grueninger Travel's junketeers are astonishingly loyal, Hanauer
The agency operates
charters from four airports: Fort Wayne, Gary and South Bend in
Indiana and Toledo, Ohio. The destinations are Atlantic City, N.J.;
Laughlin and Reno, Nev.; Tunica, Miss.; Nassau, Bahamas; and St.
Kitts. But not Las Vegas.
"The Las Vegas
market is too expensive," Hanauer said. "It's tough to compete in
the market with so many low-cost carriers flying into Vegas. I
believe Las Vegas does well enough on its own, and the other
casinos are looking for customers. Many of our clients like the
destinations because they aren't as hectic as Las
The trips generally
feature Harrah's and other casinos for which the agency is a casino
representative. Grueninger Travel is not a typical casino rep; most
are not travel agencies, Hanauer said.
The agency sells
its packages -- including air, hotel and transfers -- to frequent
gamblers for rock-bottom prices or gives them away free to the
gamblers who spend the most, she said.
The agency makes
its money from the casinos, which reward their reps based on how
much each gambler spends in the casinos. The casinos track how much
gamblers wager via players cards that gamblers insert in the
machines or give to floor personnel when playing table
Grueninger Travel has the same information the casinos have
because, after each trip, the host casino sends the agency a
report. Staffers at Grueninger Travel enter that data into an
industry-specific piece of software called Junketeer. As a result,
the agency can determine which clients can travel for free and who
can bring a companion for free.
The agency draws
its clients from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio and promotes
with direct mail, newspaper advertising and the Internet.
Grueninger Travel offers typical leisure travelers some online
booking options, but for the charter business, the Web functions
like a bulletin board.
There has been
consistent promotional activity, but word-of-mouth referrals are
significant in growing the charter business and often provide leads
for leisure and corporate sales, Hanauer said.
She has been
surprised at how successful the junket business is, but she
understands something about the customer loyalty.
The clients are
typically in their 50s or older. They want nonstop flights, which
is exactly what they get with charters. And the agency staffs every
charter with an escort.
If the junket
business continues to grow, Hanauer said Grueninger Travel would
have to add to its 13-person staff.
All in the family
Hanauer is a travel
agent's daughter. Her father, James Reffeitt, purchased the agency
in 1974 from founder Othmar Grueninger, who today is chairman of
Grueninger Travel Group in Indianapolis. The Fort Wayne agency is
unrelated to the Indianapolis business, Hanauer said.
She worked in her
father's agency as a kid, doing the "grunt work" with no thought of
making travel her career until she took a "life-changing" trip to
Alaska while a college sophomore. Hanauer said she fell in love
with the destination, and the lights went on when she realized that
"I could make a career out of this."
Hanauer, now the
agency president, said her father had a tradition of operating one
or two charters a year to Las Vegas, led by local radio or TV
personalities. After her father died in 1992, she bought the agency
from his estate (there are five siblings) but was not interested in
continuing gaming charters. That's when her husband, who owns and
operates an independent life/health insurance business, raised his
hand and volunteered.
A co-owner of
Grueninger Travel, Gary is also its secretary/treasurer, and he
runs one part of the business: the junkets, which account for 10%
of the agency's volume.
Grueninger Travel is a full-service agency with typical corporate,
leisure and group business. The agency is a member of Travelsavers,
which helps make the business competitive because of the
"promotions and deals" that the agency can offer to clients,
recently built a 12-unit strip mall and moved their two businesses
(travel and insurance) into adjoining offices. The rest of the
offices are rented out to other businesses.
Hanauer "wants to keep working on customer loyalty on the leisure
side," aside from the casino business.
"I don't want to
overlook this just because one side of the business does so well,"
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A junket to St.
itinerary is a typical one prepared by Grueninger Travel in Fort
Wayne, Ind., for gambling charters.
1: Check in at the airport in Fort Wayne at least two
hours prior to an 8:30 a.m. departure to St. Kitts. After arrival,
representatives from the St. Kitts Marriott Resort & Royal
Beach Casino assist clients with their luggage and transfers to the
hotel. Courtesy shuttles are located directly outside of the
luggage claim area.
Days 2 to
5: Clients can relax at the resort, which offers golf at
the Royal St. Kitts Golf Club, swimming at the pristine Frigate Bay
Beach, treatments at the 15,000-square-foot Emerald Mist Spa &
Fitness Center and dining at six restaurants. The
35,000-square-foot Royal Beach offers the traditional gaming
options plus three-card poker, Texas hold 'em poker and a sports
and race book. Nearby activities include hiking, horseback riding,
sailing, scuba diving and personal watercraft rentals. The lobby
has a tour desk and a car rental desk.
6: Luggage is picked up from the rooms at 8:30 a.m., and
shuttle buses depart for the airport at 10:45 a.m. for the return
flight to Fort Wayne.
Itinerary is an example of an itinerary an agent crafted his or
herself, not available anywhere else, but can be duplicated by
other agents to sell to their clients. To send an example of an
itinerary you've customized, e-mail to [email protected] with "Perfect Itinerary" in
the subject line.