A passionate career

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Despite any cliches of wimpiness that might cling to the term "new age," Dianne Billings, whose agency specializes in these kinds of trips, also is a clear-headed businesswoman.

So when she discussed the Inner Voyage cruise she's been selling since 1991, Billings was quick to note that this product helps her avoid price-driven cruise shoppers.

The brochure for the inner voyage cruise.With a full program of on-board presentations from holistic experts, "I have a value-added product," she said. "We have a markup of $500 to $900 above the cruise line's price, and people pay that without complaining."

Billings, owner of Dreamtime Cruises and Tours in Casselberry, Fla., sees her specialty as "my way of combining my career with my passion."

Her "eclectic" spiritual interests have ranged from intuition and past lives to alternative medicine. As a single mother of two teenage daughters, she is happy to find practices that help promote "inner peace" and the knack of "not taking things too seriously."

Billings, working with the Inner Voyage, the company that coordinates the speakers for the Inner Voyage cruises, is expanding her repertoire to include land packages to destinations such as Bali, Peru, Egypt, Tibet and Sedona, Ariz.

She also will pay a $150 referral fee (on cruise prices that average $1,500 per person, double) to any travel agent who sends clients on the latest Inner Voyage cruise, scheduled for March 5 to 12 on a western Caribbean gig on Costa Cruises' CostaVictoria.

The agenda includes daily yoga, tai-chi and qui gong classes; vegetarian meals, and workshops with the likes of Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of the best-selling book "Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy"; Larry Dossey, M.D., an authority on alternative medicine whose latest book is "Reinventing Medicine," and Bob Greene, co-author of "Make the Connection," the book that detailed Oprah Winfrey's exercise secrets.

A big benefit of this cruise: "People bond really quickly," said Billings. "If an agent has one woman who's interested, you can tell her, 'There's nobody alone for long. You make friends instantly in a group like this.' "

Phone: (800) 546-7871.

How to conference

Booking cruise conferences can be a good group specialty, according to Dianne Billings, owner of Dreamtime Cruises and Tours, Casselberry, Fla. Here are her tips on how to do it well:

l Know the difference between a true affinity group and a promotional group. The Inner Voyage cruise that Billings books is the latter, which requires massive advertising (full-page ads in special-interest consumer magazines Yoga Journal and New Age Journal) because she's targeted a group of people with common interests and no other bond.

www.theinnervoyage.com.True affinity groups, of course, are easier to deal with -- frequently you can handle all your business with one call to a group leader.

l Look for a cruise line that's sensitive to your group and its particular needs. Some lines are easier to deal with than others, said Billings, who has sampled several but now prefers Costa: "I've done eight groups with them. I've got a track record. They know what I need, and they want to keep my business," she said.

"You have to be able to tell the line, 'I'm going to need so many public rooms at these particular hours.' Some will tell you at the last minute what they're going to give you, which doesn't help.

"Others require all names 90 days before sailing, while Costa knows I'm still matching people with roommates and moving them around 30 days out. They know it's the nature of the beast that some things are last minute."

Get referrals from many sources. For the Inner Voyage cruise, "we have speakers promoting it, and we also give referral commissions to previous cruisers," said Billings.

Racing the client to the finish line

There's a new generation of travelers headed our way who will wait about as long for an itinerary as they wait for their double mocha lattes.

To keep up with the baby boomers, we have to learn how to use the Internet to deliver information that is far more specific than what we once provided. We have to contend with the fact that clients, through the Internet, can peek inside hotel rooms and see the view from the bridge of a cruise ship sailing into Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.

Richard Turen.The question boils down to: How do we get our customers information before they find it themselves?

It is time, I believe, to add a new title to the lexicon, that of Internet research specialist. Your specialist might be a high school student working part-time or a retired computer executive (more and more available since the average retirement age in Silicon Valley is about 27).

But all your agents should be able to produce weather reports, restaurant reviews and detailed hotel information within minutes of a client's request.

Your job is no longer selling travel. Your job is producing such a high level of personalized information to your clients that they feel compelled to use your services.

Richard Turen is an industry consultant and travel agency president.

E-mail him at [email protected].

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