Agent Board Mulls State of the Business

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NEW ORLEANS -- Still smarting from the latest airline commission cuts, nine agents who gathered here for Sonesta Hotels & Resorts' advisory board meeting talked about shifting business to hotels and cruises, abandoning retail space, creating niches and charging fees.

"What bothers all of us is the airlines' attitude," said Ron Hersh of Columbus, Ohio-based World of Travel. "Not only are they not going to do anything to assist you, they're working against you. The most common scenario: Someone wants to make an adjustment to their ticket, and, of course, the airline said no. Then the client goes out to the ticket counter and [the airline will change it for them]."

Barbara Leddy of Suburban Travel in Milburn, N.J., said she had a family of eight cancel a flight to Orlando, Fla., when one of the kids became sick. "At $50 per ticket, it was going to cost her $400 to exchange these tickets," she said, "and the new tickets were going to be more expensive. So I said to them, 'Why don't you take these tickets to the airport and see what they'll do for you.' They went to the airport, saved the $400 and didn't pay the increase because for two-and-a-half hours they sat with this guy who didn't know what he was doing. The moral of the story is, make sure you go to a different airline agent each time because you'll get a different answer each time."

"Our credibility is on the line," said Carol Schwartz of CMR Travel Corp. in Hartsdale, N.Y. "That's the sad part about it. You're doing your client a favor [by sending them to the airport], but in the future they're going to say, 'Why do I need an agent?' "

Clients don't need agents to sell them air anymore, said Debbie Tucker of Travel Designs by Debbie in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It's on the Internet, it's direct from the airlines," she said. "We short-change ourselves by selling air and not concentrating on hotels, cruise lines and tours. This is where they still need us -- to plan their vacations."

Tucker left her agency last fall to create a business focused on high-end leisure clients who literally can call her at any hour. (See sidebar below.) Spending time with everyone who called or walked in the door didn't work, she said. "In Florida, I'm dealing with many retired people who have all day," she said. "We used to serve coffee and cookies every Friday. That was the biggest disaster! We got rid of the couch and easy chairs and we put in these ugly, straight-back chairs that are so uncomfortable. You have to look at your client base and find the 10% that [provide] 90% [of your revenue] and weed out the rest. How many of us have clients who spend a half-hour on the phone with us because they want that $119 airline ticket?"

Paul Stalbaum of Stalbaum Travel in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., has a different philosophy. "Even though it might not be cost-effective, if someone calls or walks in and wants an airline ticket, we'll [book it for them] in anticipation that they'll be happy with the service and come to us to book their vacations and cruises," he said. Stalbaum said the airline cuts have forced his company to create new avenues. "We've started a couple of specialized divisions for certain types of travelers. One is a program for learning-disabled adults.

"It's been successful so far -- we do about 50 of these groups a year."

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A New Way to Do Business

NEW ORLEANS -- Debbie Tucker discovered a new way to do business. She left the St. Petersburg, Fla., agency she had co-owned for 11 years and started working from home last fall, taking calls from clients at all hours any day of the week. She'll meet clients at a restaurant or arrange travel for clients she has never met but with whom she communicates by e-mail.

"Most people don't have time to come into an agency between 9 and 5," and weekends are when "you'll get the clients with money to spend," she said.

Free from the administrative work of running an agency, she has time to surf the Net for three or four hours each day, creating itineraries and searching out hotel packages. Some clients want to do their own Web surfing, but they still need an agent to sift through their choices, she said.

She doesn't charge fees, and her policy is to never put a client on hold.

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