Agents' choice

It's a good thing for the hotel industry that agents have higher opinions of hotels than they do of airlines. Ask an agent to pick a favorite airline and chances are you'll get a frown. Ask an agent for some favorite hotels and, well, watch out.

The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua Bay in Hawaii.Vicki Sammartino, manager of Gordon Travel Service in Pittsburgh, has a particular affinity for Ritz-Carlton properties.

"I've never found any in any city I've ever put anybody in or stayed in myself that isn't a wonderful hotel," said Sammartino, who has been an agent for about 20 years.

Some of her favorites are the Ritz-Carlton Boston -- "an older property that's maintained so much class and character" -- and the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua Bay in Hawaii.

She frequently sends clients to Kapalua Bay, based in part on her personal experience at the hotel. The secluded resort, with good golf, plenty of beach and nearby mountains, particularly appealed to Sammartino.

"It's way out there, and has more of an island atmosphere," said Sammartino.

A gala at the Kempinski in Dresden, Germany.She also has her favorites in Europe, including such notables as the Hassler and the Westin Excelsior, both in Rome, and the Inter-Continental Grand in Paris, which she calls "money-wise, an excellent value," adding, "and the property is great."

"If you're lucky enough to have a client planning a trip to Europe, and you have $300 a night to work with, that's heaven, because you can get great properties in those places," said Sammartino.

Arlene Fantone, travel consultant with Bay Area Travel Services in Santa Monica, Calif., said one of her top hotels was the Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais in Dresden, in the former East Germany.

She visited the hotel, a former palace, a few years ago, and the experience was highlighted by a midnight dinner that followed an opera performance.

"It was just a magical evening," said Fantone.

At home, Fantone likes the Windsor Court in New Orleans, the Carlyle in New York, the Drake in Chicago and the Four Seasons in Washington.

"There are so many beautiful hotels I think about," said Fantone.

-- Grant Flowers

Reach out and touch everyone

One of the benefits of frequently booking a particular hotel is that an agent can develop a relationship with the property and, therefore, be privy to advantages most agents might not enjoy.

Jodi Capper, an agent at Four A Travel in Houston has a handful of favorite hotels in the Caribbean and Mexico, destinations on which her agency concentrates.

Grand Lido Sans Souci in Jamaica is a resort favorite of Houston agent Jodi Capper. In Cozumel, she often sends clients to the Allegro Resort, and the Grand Lido Sans Souci in Jamaica also is a big destination for her clients.

Two other top resorts are the Iberostar Tucan and the Iberostar Quetzal, in Playa del Carmen near Cancun.

"We're really close to the two Cancun properties," said Capper. "The owner came to our office and talked to us.

"If we need a room and it's all sold out, they'll find a room for us."

Capper said getting such access involves communicating with the hotel and, of course, booking it.

"You have to keep in contact with them. We're not a nobody," said Capper, who estimated that her agency booked 30 to 50 clients a month into Iberostar properties.

Arlene Fantone, a travel consultant at Bay Area Travel Services in Santa Monica, Calif., also has a direct approach.

"Usually for my favorite clients, I'll fax the hotel a few days before and ask the hotel to please give them a very good room," said Fantone, who has been an agent for 23 years, most spent working with top-end customers.

"I sell these hotels and I tell them that the clients are upscale," said Fantone.

"Just tell them that you expect the best, and they do give you the best."

Different strokes

When I first entered the retail travel industry in the early 1970s, I was amazed by the incredible success stories I heard from my peers.

I was mesmerized by their accounts of lucrative bookings by upscale clients, huge corporate accounts and large-scale tour programs they had cleverly marketed.

Judy Zacek.Back then, my partner and I struggled to build our business by serving a broad range of clients, from budget-conscious college students and retirees to the occasional affluent traveler.

Yet, it seemed as if every other agency in town handled nothing but customers with unlimited budgets.

As time went by, however, I discovered that most of the incredible success stories I heard were -- just stories.

Back then, virtually no one heard of niche marketing. The idea of carefully tailoring one's business to target clients wanting a specific type of travel or destination just didn't exist. With some variations based on location, most agencies sold every sort of travel product to anyone who came through the door.

The shift in modus operandi since my early days in the industry has resulted in more and more agencies defining themselves as niche marketers serving the needs of affluent travelers.

Once again, I find myself listening to agents whose entire business consists of top-of-the-line cruises and tours, deluxe FITs and other upscale products and services to exotic destinations.

Trade associations, publications and industry gurus all emphasize the sales skills and expertise it takes to serve today's wealthiest consumers.

Just as I did in the 1970s, I find myself wondering exactly who handles the rest of the traveling public.

In such a diverse society, surely there are people with moderate incomes who satisfy their love of travel by saving money and carefully planning ahead. Is anyone interested in serving their needs?

I'm not suggesting that we return to a time when agents believed that any business was good business. Obviously, an agency must find the right formula to assure its profitability.

I am convinced, though, that there is more than one right formula, and there is still a role -- a niche, if you will -- for the community-focused business serving a broad clientele.

The skills needed to market your agency successfully are not really that different from those required to be profitable while focusing on a narrow niche.

You still have to define your clientele, trim your operating costs and develop the product knowledge and destination expertise that enable you to provide superior service, and to demonstrate to clients that by using you, the additional value they obtain will offset any service charges or professional fees.

Deep down, we all know that the way business cycles exist today, the client with an unlimited budget may well be tomorrow's customer with an eye towards value.

Maybe it's time to remember the old adage that "the money is just as green on Main Street as it is on Wall Street."

Judith C. Zacek, Ph.D, CTC, is a consultant based in Newton, Mass. A former president of the Institute of Certified Travel Agents, she currently chairs ICTA's Academic Council.

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