An atypical career path

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Eric Flaxman, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, a former travel agent and now business development manager for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based tour operator Future Vacations, hasn't had a typical career in either of his fields -- travel or the military.

Eric Flaxman.Two out of the three Philadelphia agencies he owned were "quirky," he said. Passport Cafes Travel was a combination bookstore, cafe and travel agency. Main Street Travel was set in a farmers' market because that was where customers congregated, he said. (Opened in 1995, the three are now closed, though Flaxman's former manager maintains the client list from another location.)

Meanwhile, Flaxman was chosen for his branch of the military because of his skills in tourism. As part of the U.S. force that intervened in Haiti in 1994, he became acting director general of tourism and also worked on humanitarian assistance projects. He took on a similar role in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he is still principal advisor to the ministries of trade and tourism.

It's that behind-the-scenes knowledge that he hopes to impart to agents in his new role at Future Vacations, where, working out of the Dallas-Fort Worth office, he recently visited 150 agents.

As an employee of a new, small tour operator without consortium relationships, Flaxman also has some atypical things to say to retailers. "Agents have become blinded by the whole preferred-supplier issue," he said. "We're trying to work directly with agents, so the money from commissions goes into their pockets instead of a consortium's."

In his agency visits, he has already come across this response: "We can't work with you. This is the list I'm allowed to book from."

"A preferred-supplier list doesn't have to be jammed down your throat," he said. "At the big corporate chains, you have to go through three levels of supervisors to book a product that's not on their list. But if we get to a world where every agent is booking the same 20 vendors because they all belong to [your consortium], what does that say for our industry? Instead, find a few suppliers you're happy working with who will support you."

Advice from a tourism advisor

As the business development manager for the Dallas office of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Future Tours, Eric Flaxman is working with an agent base facing limited air service to, and limited knowledge of, the Caribbean.

But as an advisor to Haiti's secretary of state for tourism, Flaxman does know the Caribbean. "History and culture are the steppingstones for understanding what the Caribbean is all about," Flaxman said.

"There's a huge variance of cultures, with English, Spanish, Dutch and French-speaking islands, and they all differ. It behooves agents to know which client would fit which island. Some [islands] are very quiet and offer ecotourism, like Dominica; for those interested in history, pick a more colonized island like Barbados."

Geography is important when you have people concerned about hurricanes, said Flaxman. "Some islands never get hit because they're so far south."

As tourism advisor to still another nation -- Bosnia and Herzegovina -- he's been watching that country recover from the war.

Flaxman said he sees "some bright spots for a quick recovery," such as a pilgrimage area in the southern part of Bosnia, and "people are also starting to visit Sarajevo again."

Some legal questions

A former employee opened a competing agency across the street. Can he legally do this?

Dan McManus.Probably. Unless he signed a noncompete agreement restricting him from competing against you within a certain geographic area, he has the right to pursue his own business, next door or anywhere else. Even though it may seem unfair to you, his actions are legal as long as he's not soliciting your customers or using other proprietary information.

However, you can and should prevent him from using your customer list, soliciting business from your customers or using your agency's name to promote his new business. Also, any confidential reports and information he may have about your agency's customers or methods of marketing are off-limits, since he acquired them while he was an employee.

Sometimes we take a "stress break" and throw a ball around in a park across the street. A friend told me this is legally risky. How?

A recent court decision opens employers to liability for all kinds of activities when their employees are on paid breaks.

The case involved an employee injured while playing football during his break from work. The employee filed a workers' compensation claim, which the court supported since the employee was technically "on the clock" and had his employer's permission to participate in the game. The employee received full compensation benefits.

To protect your agency, have a written restriction on activities allowed during employees' paid breaks. Note that you have no exposure when your employees are on an unpaid break, such as lunch. They are free to spend this time doing whatever they choose.

While this advice is intended to be accurate, anyone with specific legal issues should seek the counsel of a professional advisor.

Former agency owner Dan McManus is the publisher of the newsletter The Successful Worldspan Agent. Contact him at [email protected].

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