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.
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
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
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
She visited the hotel, a former palace, a few years ago, and the
experience was highlighted by a midnight dinner that followed an
"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
"There are so many beautiful hotels I think about," said
-- 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.
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
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
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
When I first entered the retail travel industry in the early
1970s, I was amazed by the incredible success stories I heard from
I was mesmerized by their accounts of lucrative bookings by
upscale clients, huge corporate accounts and large-scale tour
programs they had cleverly marketed.
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
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
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.