For some travel agencies religious travel is a niche, but at MTS Travel in Ephrata, Pa., it is the tail that wags the dog. According to Cindi Brodhecker, MTS Travels business development manager, 75% of the agencys business derives from churches, development organizations and not-for-profit associations. 

The companys history tells the story. In the 1940s, MTS was part of a humanitarian organization called the Mennonite Central Committee, whose primary purpose was to transport members to Europe to help with post-World War II reconstruction.

From those beginnings, the company evolved into a separate business, eventually growing to its present status as a 13-office agency with branches nationwide.

While individual offices tend to have their own set of specialties, Brodhecker said, religious travel continues to dominate the business model.

From the beginning we were fulfilling a need, and as those organizations we served grew, we grew, she said.

But when Brodhecker refers to religious travel, she doesnt just mean one group or one destination, such as leading Christian pilgrims to Lourdes, France, or to Israel.

Instead, the company takes a nondenominational approach, offering its services to several religious groups as well as humanitarian organizations.

Not all clients are looking for a stroll through religious ruins or even a spiritual retreat; a significant percentage are missionaries working in the field.

A life change

Brodhecker, a former homebody with an accounting background, credits a midlife crisis for bringing her to her present calling.

Looking to add meaning to her work, she joined the travel industry.

I started at the motorcoach end of travel and, just to give you an idea, when [colleagues] began talking about their next trip to Branson, Mo.,  I didnt know where Branson was, Brodhecker said.

She no longer considers herself geographically challenged. In fact, Brodhecker takes pride in the fact that she and the agencys staff know the ins and outs of some of the most obscure destinations that attract missionaries.

We also know the routing the missionaries will probably have to use, whether visas are necessary, what the luggage requirements are and if there is a medical team traveling, how to handle additional luggage, Brodhecker said.

Were not a household name, but we send more people to Nairobi from North America than anyone else, she said.

The travel agency also sends many missionary travelers to Zimbabwe and Azerbaijan.

But getting travelers to their destination is only part of the package, Brodhecker said.

Its more complicated than just calling the Zimbabwe Hilton. Its putting tents up in the field and making sure there is access to water and petrol, she said.

Airline contracts, developed over the years, are an important ingredient in the companys success, noted Brodhecker.

The agency can also help negotiate humanitarian rates as well as special fares for clients who want to visit their family, friends and partners in the field.

A tightly knit team

The most important factor in the success of the agency is the staff, according to Brodhecker, who touts their years of experience and, in some cases, their firsthand missionary experience.

The ones we keep are the ones who love what they do, she said.

In addition to serving missionary and humanitarian travel, the company sells religious tours and FITs, such as to the Oberamagau passion plays in Germany.

This is a project that all our offices coast-to-coast would work on as a team, she said.  The advantage of having offices coast to coast is that there is always someone available in different time zones.

All MTS Travel offices are linked by a common telephone service, a feature that was useful during last years storms in Miami and Mississippi.

We were able to close those offices, send the staff home to safety and transfer their calls to other offices, Brodhecker said.

While noting that the companys expertise in religious travel would be difficult for a full-service agency to duplicate, she stressed that the key to selling any niche is to follow ones passions. She suggested asking employees about their interests -- do they play golf, sing in a choir or bird watch? -- then taking advantage of that expertise.

Brodhecker also stressed the importance of marketing. She attends up to 30 conferences a year as a supplier, including meetings of medical missions, national religious broadcasters and denominational groups, such as a Seventh-day Adventist conference that draws 70,000 attendees every year.

Regardless of the niche they choose, Brodhecker urged agents to forge strong relationships with their contacts and learn about their specialty in depth.

Organizations are so diverse, and you dont want to lose credibility, she said. Its not a good idea to get involved in something you dont understand.

Think youre a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Felicity Long, Agent Life editor, at[email protected]. Include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put Agent Life in the subject line.

Perfect Itinerary
A customized itinerary through the heart of Turkey

Earl Starkey, a travel agent with 28 years experience, has been named Conde Nast Travelers Best Travel Agent for Turkey every year since 2001. Starkey is an independent agent with Protravel International in New York, and he also operates Sophisticated Travel, with offices in New York and Istanbul. Following is a portion of a customized Turkey itinerary:

Day 1
After breakfast at the Four Seasons Istanbul, a guide will meet travelers for a full-day tour. Sites include the 19th century Dolmabahce Palace, the last home of Kemal Ataturk, and the Sadberk Hanim museum in Rumeli Hisari, known for its ethnographic and archaeological collection. Travelers then are taken on a private Bosporus cruise. Dinner is at Lacivert Restaurant on the waterfront.

Day 2
Travelers fly to Kayseri, where they will be met by a guide for a descent to the underground city of Kaymakli in Cappadocia. A tour of Ihlara canyon follows, including a walk through the canyon via the Steps of Anatolia to Belisirma village for a look at the churches carved from the rocks. After lunch in Belisirma at a local riverfront restaurant, the next stop is at the village of Selime to examine early 13th century Turkish Seljuk art. Overnight at the Yunak Mahallesi hotel.

Day 3
An early morning hot-air balloon ride is followed by breakfast and a full-day tour of Cappadocia. Lunch is in Avanos, known for its terra cotta art works dating from 3000 B.C. In the afternoon, visit the Goreme Open Air Museum, with its Byzantine art, and climb on top of the Uchisar Rock-Castle for a panoramic view.

Day 4
Travelers will be transported to Kayseri airport for a flight to Izmir and transfer to Sirince. On the way, the group will visit the ancient ruins at Ephesus and take in the House of Virgin Mary before going on to Sirince village for an overnight at the Nisanyan Evleri hotel.

Day 5
The group will meet with a guide after breakfast and visit the seaside resort town of Bodrum, stopping at the port towns of Priene and Miletus as well as the Temple of Apollo in Didyma along the way. In Bodrum harbor, travelers will board a private gullet, a classic Turkish schooner, for a scenic cruise.

The Perfect Itinerary is an example of an itinerary an agent crafted his or herself, not available anywhere else, but can be duplicated by other agents to sell to their clients. To send an example of an itinerary youve customized, e-mail to[email protected]with Perfect Itinerary in the subject line.

Hand in Hand
NCL event lets first-timers dip toe in the water

You know what they say about cruising: The challenge is persuading landlubbers to give it a try. Demerara Travel Associates in Bloomfield, N.J., in conjunction with Norwegian Cruise Lines, has embarked on an all-out effort to do just that.

This spring, the agency marketed one-night Dinner and Dance Cruises out of New York Harbor aboard the Norwegian Dawn and the Norwegian Spirit as Mothers Day and Fathers Day presents.

For those noncruisers who think a ship will be too restrictive or who are concerned about the motion on the water, a one-night cruise gives them an opportunity to experience the stability of the vessel and get a taste of the cruise lifestyle, said agency manager Theo Alleyne.

The campaign drew an unexpectedly large response, said Alleyne, but by the time he received responses, there wasnt a lot of space left on the ship. Alleyne now realizes he should have advertised the event sooner.

The venture was still a success, however, because I was able to book some callers onto other cruises, and -- more importantly -- I was able to add them to my mailing list, he said.

Terri Burke, vice president of business development for NCL, said, Using themed or special cruises is a great way to tap into the first-time cruiser market.

She added that NCL will offer more one-night cruises in 2007 than ever before.

Partnering with local agents who can target these potential cruisers is a key focus, Burke said.

Alleyne said he would do this type of promotion again and that he learned from his marketing mistake.

The experience helped me understand how to plan more effectively, so next time I will make sure my lead time is at least four or five months, he said.

NCLs next one-night Dinner and Dance cruise, which sails from Seattle to Vancouver, will be held on the Norwegian Sun on Sept. 23.

Hand in Hand highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to[email protected]with Hand in Hand in the subject line.

Marc My Words
Stealth markets in the spotlight

By Marc Mancini

Most of us feel were familiar with the major segments of our industry. However, every now and then I discover a huge, prosperous chunk of the travel business that previously I knew almost nothing about. In a few cases, I didnt even know they existed. Lets call them the stealth sectors of travel.

Why should you know about these businesses that fly under our radar?

Perhaps you can, in some way, tap them to serve your own needs. You might even find a whole new opportunity and direction for your energy, knowledge and skills. So here are my favorite four:

1. Bank travel. How can a bank reinforce customer loyalty and, in some cases, add another profit center to its operations? By organizing group travel for its customers.

Composed mostly of independent, local banks and situated mainly in the Midwest and South (though youll find some in the rest of the U.S., too), bank travel programs typically offer short, value-priced, escorted tours to domestic destinations, with several departures throughout the year.

Thats changing, though. For example, 26% of the banks have offered trips to Europe. In some cases, the banks travel coordinator assembles the trip from scratch. (Some coordinators are former travel agents.)

In other situations, they outsource it to a travel agency or to a major tour operator, like Mayflower or Collette, which have quietly targeted this segment for a long time.

To find out more about this industry sector, contact its two trade associations: Heritage Clubs International and Bank Travel.

2. Group intermediaries. An offshoot of the meeting planning industry, group intermediaries are the matchmakers of the lodging industry.

Intermediaries nurture strong relationships with certain hotels and lodging chains that are especially suited to corporate group needs.

A major corporation, often with its own meeting planning division, will contact a group intermediary to come up with the exact location and property that fulfills the companys precise specifications (Its sort of like when a travel agent qualifies a client).

The intermediary will then go to several properties that fit the needs and budget of its client. The intermediary will then step aside for the meeting planners to do their work.

Most group intermediaries are capable of doing the meeting planning, as well, but they primarily see themselves as keenly informed specialists and expert negotiators.

Some say that the rise of group intermediaries has been one of the fastest growing and significant developments in the hospitality industry, exceeded only by the entrance of major hotel brands into the timeshare/vacation club business  --  another stealth sector.

3. Fractional aircraft ownership. Somewhat similar to lodging timeshares, the success of this sector is in sharp contrast to the plight of our legacy airlines. Each small business jet has multiple owners who have bought a set amount of flight hours per year.

Many corporations have discovered that fractional ownership may be less expensive than buying first- or business-class seats for their executives.

A few fractional jet companies even pay commissions to travel agents who sell to their clients the hours that a fractional owner doesnt use.

4. Small-ship cruising. I hesitate to categorize this group as a stealth segment, since most of you know about coastal and river cruising. But most agents have never experienced it, so they hesitate to recommend it.

Perhaps your next vacation should be on the Danube, through the Norwegian fjords, down the Nile or along the Pacific Northwest coast. One trip and youll realize how satisfying a small-ship cruise can be.

Marc Mancini is an industry speaker and consultant who teaches at West Los Angeles College.

Five Things
Cost-saving strategies for family vacations

1. Look for deals to offset high gas prices. Visit TravelPost.com for information on hotels that offer special deals to those arriving by car. It wont hurt to ask when making a reservation if there are any gas rebates, said Eileen Ogintz, a nationally syndicated columnist specializing in family travel and creator of TakingtheKids.com. When booking a hotel for your clients, Ogintz also suggested asking about free or discounted family activities, services or amenities available nearby, such as family programs at museums, which tend to be plentiful in summer. 

2. Encourage clients to try an urban family vacation. Many city hotels are looking to fill rooms in the summer, especially on weekends, when business travel is down. Not only do many city hotels offer value-added packages designed to lure families, but many also have in-house swimming pools and other on-site attractions that appeal to kids.

3. Suggest heading for a destination in its low season. Just because its summer doesnt mean its high season everywhere, said Ogintz, who touts the Caribbean this time of year for deep discounts on both hotel and air. Ski resorts are also good, affordable bets with lots to do, Ogintz said. Ski resorts have such kid-friendly activities as alpine and water slides and lift-assisted mountain biking. Even the non-athletic can get in the act with a scenic gondola ride up the mountain.

4. Steer clients toward a condo with a kitchen. Even parents who dont want to spend their vacation cooking can save a bundle by opting to have breakfast and snacks in their condo and save the restaurant outings for dinner. For lunch, consider packing a snack for lunch at the beach or on the road, Ogintz said. Check the local chamber of commerce or visitor center Web site for coupons on attractions and restaurants, she said.

5. Push clients to rent a fuel-efficient vehicle. Ogintz also suggested that  parents visit FuelCostCalculator.com to estimate what a driving vacation will cost.

Comments

From Our Partners

2020 Sandos Palmaia 2 Webinar
Discover Palmaïa - The House of AïA
Register Now
American Queen South
American Queen Steamboat Company
Read More
2020 NTG Webinar Series
Travel, Our Future and Yours A Series of Conversations with Industry Leaders
Register Now

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI