Against 'the Wall'

Who said everyone's memory is in a computer these days? Where is it written that all database management involves high-tech systems? Sure, computers are very handy memory aids, and e-tools are essential to complex data sorting, but the simple, low-tech approach has its place, too.

Adriane Greene, the owner/manager of Welcome Travel in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y. Just ask Adriane Greene, the owner/manager of Welcome Travel in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y. She describes her market as a place where people have "low-tech ways," where customers stop in to bring treats or show baby pictures, and while they're there, grab a piece of the candy that is always on offer.

It also is a market where direct mail has produced "zero response" and cruise

nights aren't very successful either.

But clients and friends of clients do drop by at the $1.5 million leisure agency to put their names and special travel requests on "the Wall."

Greene said she and her staff had tried keeping tabs on pending client requests in a common notebook. But that did not work very well.

"It was just pushed aside," she said. So, one day, in about 1985, the agents started plastering "stickies" on the wall next to the safe.

Those reminders "are in our faces every day," and the staff essentially has every item memorized, Greene said.

Stickies note.There were 20 stickies on the wall one recent day. Some stay there for months. But, eventually, about 50% to 75% end in a purchase, Greene said, and from her standpoint, the Wall is "super-effective."

She figures it accounts for $50,000 in annual sales. Also, she believes it is another useful bond that keeps customers coming back because it is visible evidence that "we are looking out for them."

-- Nadine Godwin

Conquering stress

f you look at your business from the customer's point of view, you will focus on helping those customers more, said David Biltek, who owns Travelhandlers in Grand Prairie, Alberta.

If you help customers more, he told agents at the annual Giants conference in Atlanta, you will keep your customers, they will provide more referrals, and you will sell more travel. Staff will be motivated, too.

In a workshop on retaining clients, Biltek emphasized the importance of an electronic client list.

But the picture is not complete without "walking a mile in your customers' shoes," he said.

Biltek was referring to the concept of "human marketing," developed by Toronto-based lecturer Donald Cooper.

At his agency, Biltek applied the techniques outlined in Cooper's instructional videos and cassette tapes.

He said the heart of the program is identifying customer stresses about travel. These include stresses that are produced by the agency itself, such as its location. Biltek's agency, for instance, is on the second floor, up a flight of stairs.

The more detailed an agency's answers to the program's questions pertaining to customer stress, the more effectively the agency can alleviate those stresses, he said.

At Travelhandlers, Biltek said, he organized a series of full-staff meetings, with a facilitator, to flesh out a detailed picture of client concerns and to develop solutions.

Stressed Traveler.He sent a survey to 300 top clients, asking them to identify causes of travel-related stress and how the agency contributes to stress.

(The latter could be anything from too many rings before an agent answers the phone to long waits in the office for service.)

He said 60 to 75 replied, and 10% of those frequent travelers said they were afraid to fly. So the agency conducted a fear-of-

flying seminar last year that was well-attended, brought referrals and yielded good press coverage.

The agency also prepares destination dossiers for each customer that include relevant Weissmann Travel Reports and maps from the Web.

Biltek said dossiers are sent to clients immediately because, besides providing information, the missives enhance the chance of referrals.

Also, due to concerns about losing documents, Travelhandlers designed a document holder for clients. That brings referrals, as well.

Biltek urged other agents to undertake similar projects to understand clients' stresses.

Additionally, he advised: Hire a facilitator, spend extra time with the facilitator, explain to the staff why you are doing this, include all staff, devote extended chunks of time to the effort, have rules of procedure and review the effectiveness of the effort every few months.

ASTA Tidbits

Pay cuts: 'Deja vu all over again ...'

ommission-cutting didn't start in 1995 with Delta's caps; it started in 1946 when the airlines went from 7.5% to 5%.

And 2002 isn't the first year agents have been at zero. The trade was not paid by suppliers in the industry's earliest days, and some agents objected when ASTA in 1931 won agency commissions from the ship lines. Those agents worried their clients would never trust them again.

Nolan Burris, president of Vancouver-based Visionistics Enterprises, recalled these and other tidbits from the past to help agents at the ASTA Southern Regional Conference there put their current situation into perspective.

He had two things to say about the overrides that remain:

• They are nice, "but run your business as if they didn't exist, because someday they may not."

• If they influence your choice of supplier, don't claim your service is unbiased. "Tell clients when you are biased and why. That's OK. Be honest."

Burris said the trade missed the opportunity to charge fees in the days before computers, when agents were the only source of information. Instead, the trade did a fine job of convincing people their services "weren't worth paying for."

Today, with viable fee structures, he said, there are agents making profits of 15%, 17%, 22%. "The secret is making customers happy."

To that end, Burris advised, "examine every decision at your agency from the customer's standpoint. Ask: Are you a travel agent or a travelers' agent?"

Success also depends on knowing your costs and charging enough.

"You can get fees for anything," Burris said.

He offered a list of possible add-on services: negotiating supplier deals; managing usage of frequent flyer points; consulting with clients in their homes and offices; consulting on travel policy creation ("the going rate is $5,000 for about 10 hours of work"); making dinner reservations (at www.zagat.com); booking seats at sports and cultural events (at www.ticketmaster.com); making referral arrangements with pet-sitters; and packaging the results of product searches on the Web.

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