An Agent Stays True to Beliefs

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For animal rights activist Donna Zeigfinger, owning an agency that specializes in vegetarian travel is the best way to "incorporate my lifestyle and beliefs into my work."

"I've worked for other agencies for 10 years, but now I can voice my opinion, and that feels wonderful. I can turn people down I don't want to work with -- or I can try and change their minds." She's most apt to veto destinations or attractions that don't fit the criteria for "cruelty-free" travel, such as countries where there's bullfighting.

Keeping true to her principles hasn't hurt her bottom line. Zeigfinger's agency, Green Earth Travel in Bethesda, Md., grossed about $700,000 in its first year -- a healthy take for her rent-a-desk set-up. "The business is growing like crazy because people are becoming more health conscious," she said.

Zeigfinger had a pool of potential clients when she began her travel specialty 11 years ago after stints as a dog groomer and working at an animal shelter.

Currently her biggest source of referrals is the Web site of the VegetarianResource Group (www.vrg.org.), which also has a link to her own (www.vegtravel.com).

Although Zeigfinger designs some FITs for clients, a bigger part of her business is making sure that clients taking mainstream trips get enough meat-free choices. For example, she was pleased when Celebrity went out of its way to accommodate a family of four, laying in supplies of organic fruits and vegetables.

A good part of Zeigfinger's business is corporate work. She has many clients with similar views to her own, such as the Humane Society of the U.S., the Doris Day Animal League and the Friends Fund for Animals.

Vegetarian Travel Tips

What cruise line will go the extra mile to pamper clients who won't eat steak? Donna Zeigfinger, owner of Bethesda, Md.-based Green Earth Travel, has the answer to this and other questions on vegetarian travel:

  • When booking cruises, contact the special services department, talk to the res agent and also make sure to fax a request for special meals. But be warned: Some cruise lines, such as Celebrity, will go out of its way for vegetarian clients, but others will not. Once on board an upscale ship, one of Zeigfinger's clients found the crew had no record of any special meal requests; a talk with the chef helped resolve the dilemma.
  • Two books Zeigfinger considers her bibles are the "Vegetarian Journal Guide to Natural Foods Restaurants in the U.S. and Canada" and "The Vegetarian Traveler," by Jed and Susan Civic.
  • Of the few properties that specialize in feeding the vegetarian guest, most are spas and bed-and-breakfasts. Good ones include the Spa Atlantis in Pompano Beach, Fla.; Serendipity, a bed-and-breakfast in Ocean City, N.J., and West of Eden, a B&B in Seal Cove, Maine.
  • The hardest place to get a a good meat-free meal is on a plane, though Zeigfinger was impressed by a recent breakfast on Continental complete with soy milk and a vegan (dairy- and egg-free) doughnut. She also applauds Swissair for its focus on organic foods.
  • Writing Her Own Ticket

    Deborah Ward of Travel Decisions Inc. in Evansville, Ind., has a home-based agency with a difference. She's one of a relative few to process all her airline tickets herself instead of working through a host agency.

    Ward decided to go through the time and expense of getting an Airlines Reporting Corp. bond because she didn't like sharing commissions with a host agency.

    "I do appreciate what the other agency did for me," she said. "But commissions are so marginal, and I was paying for all my expenses and doing everything myself anyway, with the exception of the ARC report." She added, "Before I became an ARC agency, my computer bill was $200 to $300 a month, and my CRS bill will average out to that or even lower."

    Ward's decision also goes against the standard advice to focus less on selling air. But her agency is full service, handling quite a bit of corporate travel, and its international business has jumped, so in general, she stands to gain by being ARC-approved.

    Ward's experience also did not fit industry expectations that it would be a nightmare for a home-based agency to get an ARC bond. She paid roughly $1,150 the first year, with a $900 application fee to ARC, and $250 to her bank, where she got an irrevocable $20,000 letter of credit for the bond. Each year she'll have to pay about $150 to her bank.

    A newcomer's ARC bond is $20,000. An ARC spokesman said methods of payment for bonds vary from agents' "freezing funds in an account to paying out yearly fees to bond issuers," among others.

    An ARC inspector also spent over two hours examining Ward's agency to make sure it fit ARC criteria.

    Although some home-based agencies in certain locations have had problems getting plates from certain airlines, Ward did not. "At first Delta wouldn't give me plates because I had an agency with restricted access, but I went through various channels, and we got that policy changed."

    The Goods on the Goods

    If you want to start selling travel merchandise in your agency but are not sure where to start, Paula Ivey offers help. Ivey's Houston-based company, Access International, provides advice on buying travel accessories and developing the best product mix for your agency; access to a database of travel product suppliers for everything from books to luggage; help with marketing strategies, and techniques on cross-merchandising travel products and services.

    Ivey was formerly on the management team that created Austin-based TravelFest, one of the original travel superstores to combine agency services with every possible kind of travel accessory.

    Access International's services are available by the hour (for a fee of $100) and also on a retainer basis for more comprehensive planning. Call (800) 370-9945 for more information and a free initial consultation.

    A Little Perspective

    By Phyllis Fine

    If you're tired of talk about another commission cut, consider this fact: Travel agents are not the only professionals to have their pay slashed by an outside source. Health insurers are now cutting doctors' fees.

    According to a front-page story in the June 28 New York Times, at least one company has cut payment for various surgical procedures by almost 50%. Doctors also don't have much bargaining power; they can't "reject contract terms for fear of being dropped by plans that control hundreds of their patients."

    OK, so there's a big difference between getting less than $25 per transaction and getting $2,380 when you're used to $4,602. Still, the principle is the same. And doctors bleed from pay cuts, too.

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