About 40 years ago, Glenn Wilcox got an offer that was difficult to turn down. A friend who was president of a regional bank urged him to move his travel agency, Wilcox World Travel and Tours, from Boone, N.C., to Asheville, N.C., about 85 miles away.

He said, Move your family to Asheville and be on our board of directors and open an office in our new building. Well give you rent free for two years, Wilcox said. His wife, Pauline, agreed, and the Wilcoxes relocated.

In Asheville, Wilcox met Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist, and the two became friends. Soon, Wilcox Travel was handling travel not only for Graham personally but for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and its Crusades and conferences worldwide. The first Graham Crusade handled by Wilcox in 1983 was in Amsterdam and drew 10,000 people.

The Christian religious market quickly became Wilcoxs core business, with a strong focus on pilgrimage tours to the Holy Land and other parts of the world.

Its not something that you can pick up off the shelf, said Wilcox. We create packages based on what group leaders want. We have Pied Pipers, such as the president of a garden club, a preacher or choir directors. We handle all the operations and act as the tour director. If you have a good Pied Piper, you dont have to worry about sales.

Also, Wilcox said much of the group divisions success is attributable to longtime relationships with overseas operators. The agency has used the same operators in Israel, Athens and other destinations in Europe for more than 30 years.

Wilcox Travel operates dozens of tours each year to Israel and the Middle East (Wilcox has traveled to the Holy Land 115 times and continues to lead groups) and offers other pilgrimages to Europe and the U.K., specializing in Martin Luther and Baptist heritage.

Once you do one pilgrimage, you want to do more, Wilcox said. If the pastor has a following, its a way for him to get really close to his membership. Its a bonding experience and often makes their Christian faith more meaningful. You can read about it, but theres no greater experience for Christians than being where Jesus walked and talked.

The group department also blocks space on cruises, helping church leaders organize Bible studies and other customized programs onboard ships.

And every 10 years, the agency sends about 3,000 people to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. Planning is already under way for the 2010 Passion Play season. The agency is buying 45 tickets for each performance and has an agreement with the same hotel it has used since 1970, buying all of its rooms from May through October.

About 30% of Wilcoxs $18 million in annual sales is group tours, and 30% is missionary and humanitarian travel. The agency negotiates missionary fares with airlines. Wilcox Travel uses its database of 30,000 people who are interested in missionary work and blasts e-mails to inform people about humanitarian and missionary projects. 

When the tsunami [in Southeast Asia] hit, we approached Northwest, and they gave us a special air fare. We sent 3,000 people there from all over the U.S., Wilcox said. Church-related travel is an area that airlines dont do directly because they dont understand the market. Were one of the few agents that negotiate special missionary travel year-round.

Wilcoxs agency was one of the first 50 agencies to join the American Express Representative Network, and he is the last of the original 50 still running his own business. The membership was vital to the agencys expansion, he said.

I think Amex helped us have a more global perspective, Wilcox said. Weve been able to hear whats been happening in places around the world because of being part of a global network.

Wilcox is now 74 but is still active in the agencys operations. His son, Wallace, handles much of the day-to-day management. Wallace, who has worked at the agency for 35 years, got interested in the Internet in 1992, before there was a World Wide Web. He later bought many Web addresses -- including HolyLandTours.com, Passion-Play.com and CruiseReservation.com -- that have been instrumental in generating traffic. The agency has 19 Web sites in all.

Wilcox Travel has three full-time employees who do nothing but Internet work, including Web design, hosting, e-mail blast services and search-engine optimization.

The agency was severely set back after 9/11 (and the current Israel-Hezbollah conflict has created another challenge), but Wilcox said he refuses to lay off people when business drops, counting on attrition to take care of staff reductions.

God has protected us through difficult times, he said. From the move to Asheville and his introduction to Billy Graham that started the agencys growth, Wilcox said, Gods hand was in it from the start.

Think youre a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Laura Del Rosso, Agent Life editor, at [email protected]. Include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put Agent Life in the subject line.

Perfect Itinerary

A pilgrimage to Poland

Viking Travel of Westmont, Ill., operates tours through its Shared Adventures division. This fall, the agency is offering a Poland tour, In the Footsteps of John Paul II, led by Father Robert Hutmacher, a Franciscan friar in Chicago. 

Below is a five-day portion of the 10-day trip, which spends the first three days in Warsaw and then proceeds to Czestochowa, where this excerpt begins.

Day 1

Clients visit the monastery complex of Jasna Gora, which consists of a Gothic and Baroque church, a Baroque monastery and fortress. This is where the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa (the Black Madonna) has been preserved. Clients tour the shrine and celebrate Mass. The group continues on to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial (shown at right) and tours its Martyrdom Museum guided by one of the Paulinian brothers or sisters. Dinner and overnight accommodations are in Krakow.

Day 2

The day begins with a visit to Wawel Hill and the Wawel Cathedral. Clients walk along Kanonicza Street, pausing at No. 21, which once was home to Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II. Next is the market square and the Mariacki Church. Following lunch, guests walk through the Kazmierz Quarter, visiting the Dominican Church and the Jewish Quarter. Clients also see Stanislaw na Skalce, Polands second most important pilgrimage site. The day concludes with a folklore dinner show.

Day 3

The morning is spent at Krakows Divine Mercy Shrine, including visits to the basilica and the new Shrine of International Spirituality, where Mass is celebrated. Clients are free to do as they please the rest of the day.

Day 4

Most of the day is spent in Wadowice, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II. En route is a stop at the Benedictine monastery where Wojtyla often prayed and walked the Stations of the Cross. In Wadowice, Mass is celebrated at the parish church where Pope John Paul II was baptized. A visit to the museum in his family home is also planned. Dinner and overnight is in Zakopane.

Day 5

A cable car ride takes guests to the top of Mount Kasporawry, the highest point in the Tatras Mountains and considered by many the most beautiful area in Poland. The rest of the day includes a tour of Zakopane and some free time.

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 youve customized, e-mail to [email protected] with Perfect Itinerary in the subject line.

Hand in Hand

California ranch finds fam trips pay dividends

Fam trips are still a good way to stimulate bookings. Denise Brandenburg, owner of Specialty Travel Services, Huntington Beach, Calif., and Sherrie FitzGerald, director of sales and marketing for the Alisal Guest Ranch, Solvang, Calif., are a case in point.

Last fall, Brandenburg was invited to visit to Alisal, a luxurious, ranch-style property in Southern California. Within a few hours at Alisal, Brandenburg, who specializes in families and incentive groups, knew of at least one group she could book at the ranch, which stretches across 10,000 acres in Santa Barbara County.

I knew I could sell this, Brandenburg said. Its ideal for an affluent clientele thats familiar with a country club atmosphere and would like the laid-back [atmosphere] of the ranch and seeing the wineries. And because its in Southern California, its great for my clients. They can drive and dont have the hassles of going to an airport.

Brandenburg returned to her office and called a family she has known for years. Within a few weeks, she started planning a family reunion for 30 at Alisal.

The group had a cowboy breakfast one morning at Alisals Adobe House, an old cottage on the property accessible by guided horse ride or hayride led by cowboys who work at Alisal, which is a working cattle ranch. A banquet room was made available for the familys evening meals.

Brandenburg, a home-based agent who was a sales representative for Air Jamaica and Hawaiian Airlines before starting Specialty Travel four years ago, said the fam cemented her relationship with FitzGerald and her staff. They are a joy to work with. It feels like family there. And thats important in this day and age. Its very cold out there, and I have a tendency to work with people that I like.

FitzGerald said the fam demonstrated the importance of showing the ranch to travel agents. It keeps us top of their mind. There are so many unique things here that can be difficult to explain unless you know the property.

Hand in Hand highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to [email protected] with Hand in Hand in the subject line.

Marc My Words

Fun destination facts

By Marc Mancini

My geography textbook, Selling Destinations, is used by travel schools and even by some travel agents as a reference tool. To make it fun, I livened each page with margin notes of unusual information that, Im afraid to say, are more memorable to readers than anything else.

So, here goes, some of my favorite facts:

  • In the late 18th century, Englands Captain Cook became the first European to discover Hawaii. Yet a 17th-century Spanish map shows volcanic islands in the Pacific, just about where Hawaii lies. Theres no record of any Spanish ship visiting Hawaii before Cook. The map remains a mystery.

  • Foam from breaking waves covers 3% to 4% of the earths surface.

  • Agawam, Mass., has the lowest ZIP code in the U.S.: 01001.

  • In most towns in Greenland, there are more dogs than people.

  • Because the earth spins, if youre in North America youre traveling right now at about 600 to 900 mph.

  • The Fig Newton is named after Newton, Mass.

  • The longest place name in the U.S. belongs to a Massachusetts lake: Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, which means You fish on your side of the lake, Ill fish on my side and nobody fishes in the middle.

  • Connecticuts official state insect is the praying mantis.

  • New Yorks Central Park is larger than the nation of Monaco.

  • Pittsburgh lost the h in its spelling in 1891, but after 20 years of protest the city put it back in 1911.

  • It takes the milk of 50,000 cows to create a days worth of chocolate at Hersheys main plant.

  • A movie crew filming a 1912 western brought buffalo to Catalina Island. When the shoot was finished, the buffalo were left to fend for themselves. Some of their descendants are still there.

  • At the Big Islands Kealakekua Bay is a 5,682-square-foot area that was deeded to Britain for a monument to Captain James Cook. So you can literally swim from Hawaii to England in Kealakekua Bay.

  • Waikiki was originally rocky. Most of its sand was imported from Molokai and, of all places, Manhattan Beach, Calif.

  • The most popular act in Branson, Mo., is Japanese violinist Shoji Tabuchi.

  • In a 1493 decree, the Pope decided which parts of South America should belong to Spain and which should belong to Portugal.

  • Each year, on the evening of Dec. 23, Oaxaca holds a holiday festival called the Night of the Radishes.

  • The Aztec emperor Montezuma reputedly drank 50 cups of chocolate a day.

  • The striking roofs of Bermuda houses help capture rainwater for home use.

  • The Pacific Ocean is at the Panama Canals eastern end.

  • The leader of Chiles war of independence was named Bernardo OHiggins.

  • Tours are offered of the sewers of Paris.
  • Marc Mancini is an industry speaker and consultant who teaches at West Los Angeles College.

    Five Things

    What to keep in mind when hiring people

    1. Use your own good instincts, says Alan Hess president and founder of Hess Travel/American Express in Bountiful, Utah. After several years of using professional personnel assessments to screen potential employees, I concluded that I relied on the professionals in lieu of my own good judgment, and that has led to some terrible hiring decisions, Hess said. Do not substitute someone elses judgment for your own. They will not pay for your mistakes. You will.

    2. Remember that every applicant has three personalities, Hess said. Dont be seduced by the first two. The applicants first personality is the one presented on the resume and during the job interview. The second shows up during the job honeymoon (one week to six months) and the third is the real one that emerges after the honeymoon period. The third is the personality that really matters, and the faster it emerges, the quicker you will know if you made the right choice, Hess said.

    3. Call references. It is important to call references not given by the applicant. Find them by looking at previous employers. Find someone who can give you an assessment. Help them respond by asking a question like this: On a scale of 1 to 10, how well did this person get along with co-workers?

    4. Never hire someone you cant fire. Hiring your next door neighbor or brother may sound like a great idea, but what if it doesnt work out? The odds are not in your favor. Do you really want to mess up Thanksgivings for the rest of your life?

    5. Realize that you will certainly make some hiring mistakes, and be willing to cut your losses. Three months is usually enough time to generate an honest appraisal of how a person is doing, Hess said. If an employees performance is falling short of expectations, end the employment sooner rather than later. Most firing decisions are made too late.

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