A gamble pays off

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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 said.

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 Vegas."

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 games.

Hanauer said 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.

Meanwhile, 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, Hanauer said.

The Hanauers 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.

Looking ahead, 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," she said.

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Perfect Itinerary

A junket to St. Kitts

The following itinerary is a typical one prepared by Grueninger Travel in Fort Wayne, Ind., for gambling charters.

Day 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.

Day 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.

The Perfect 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.

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