Another kind of bypass

Were some travel agents advocating bypass in the Dec. 10 issue of Travel Weekly? Yes -- but it was bypass of a slightly different kind.

The published bypass suggestion concerned benchmarking -- setting up goals to reach by comparing your financial numbers to those of other agencies. In a workshop on this topic at the recent Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA) forum, one agent in the audience made a suggestion on how to get benchmarking information: "Go to a broker who sells agencies, say you're in the market and get information on everybody in your area," said the agent (who didn't give her name at the workshop, which was structured like a brainstorming session).

Bob SweeneyThe suggestion "shocked" travel agency broker Bob Sweeney, who owns Roswell, Ga.-based Innovative Travel Acquisitions. "It was disappointing to read [an agent's] recommending that you waste the time of a broker by milking them for information on competitors," he wrote. "This is not good advice to give. I would never tell anyone to purposely waste the time of a travel agent knowing they have zero intention of booking.

"My firm acts in the same capacity as an agent in that we are both middlemen, both trying to facilitate a transaction," he added. "Some people choose to plan their own round-the-world trip without an agent, and others wouldn't dream of doing one leg of a trip without contacting their agents. We would hope that agents would realize the value that someone in our position brings to the table."

For example, said Sweeney, "it's very difficult to be in hardball negotiations with someone on Friday afternoon and then go to work with them on Monday morning. It helps to have a buffer between [buyer and seller], and that's what we do. We're the sounding board for buyer and seller so they can keep their emotions in check."

And in another similarity between Innovative Travel Acquisitions and travel agencies, Sweeney has taken the same step as many agents: "We've instituted some fees to let us know when people are serious about using us," he said.

Sellers' and buyers' bill of rights

If you're trying to sell your agency, "don't be steamrolled or intimidated because you're talking with a really big company," advised travel agency broker Bob Sweeney. "The seller has rights." For example, Sweeney said his brokerage, Roswell, Ga.-based Innovative Travel Acquisitions, will "bang on the conference table" to make sure that the buyer provides:

  • "A good strong confidentiality agreement in place so the seller is protected." Any leak "could be very detrimental and cause agents and their [corporate] accounts to scatter."
  • Compliance with selling terms -- particularly for a performance-based sales contract, in which the seller is paid with a percentage of next year's commissions. In this case, often the buyer cannot fire any agents, terminate clients or implement new fees without checking with the seller.
  • For buyers, the structure of the deal and the allocation of the payments are important. A brokerage would "limit the buyer's risk as much as possible," said Sweeney. "We also handle the 'sticker shock' for sellers, educating them on current market conditions. It carries more weight if we do that."

    Sticker shock can be considerable, since, in 1995 an owner could expect to receive $200,000 for a typical $2 million volume agency, said Sweeney. "Today the same agency is worth about $80,000."

    Still, he predicted that "by the year 2003 we can expect the pendulum to have swung back. We absolutely will have fewer travel agencies then -- and they will be in greater demand."

    Promise some good news

    People use voice mail to "control interruptions and screen unwanted calls that waste their time," writes Orvel Ray Wilson in the pamphlet "Guerrilla Selling: Unconventional Weapons and Tactics for Travel Professionals."

    So how do you leave a message on voice mail that gets returned? Here are some hints as detailed in the pamphlet:

  • First, state your business. Let them know right up front who you are, who you work for and how you can be reached. If your name is unusual, spell it.
  • Promise an answer to problems that most customers experience. Use the words "I have some ideas" instead of "I have some solutions." Prospects know solutions cost money, whereas ideas are free, so they're more likely to call back.
  • Preface your phone number with the phrase, "I'd appreciate the courtesy of a return call at [your number]." Since you are direct and courteous in your message, this magic phrase will make them three times as likely to respond. But be very careful of the tone you use or your message will sound condescending.
  • Promise some good news. Give them the top three reasons why they should be interested in returning your call. Perhaps the good news is that you can offer them a special price on a trip or information on a destination they're interested in.
  • When the voice-mail box you want to reach is full, take advantage of the fact that in many companies, workers with similar extensions are physically located close to each other. So mis-dial the extension you really want by one digit, to leave the message in a nearby colleague's voice mail. When this person gets the message (obviously meant for a neighbor ) he or she will either forward it or transcribe it and pass it on. Now your prospect has a paper message that he is more likely to return.
  • The business of theater tickets

    Selling theater tickets can be a good way to make extra income, said Melanie Samoy-Lutz, the manager at One Stop Travel, Tannersville, Pa. Samoy-Lutz works with New York-based ticket broker Theatre Direct International (TDI), ordering tickets for her clients directly through her Sabre CRS.

    One Stop's location -- in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania -- means that a trip to nearby New York "makes a nice, romantic getaway," said Samoy-Lutz. "People drive in and stay for the night and make an evening of it. We have a limo pick them up."

    With commission at 10% on the face value of the ticket from TDI, said Samoy-Lutz, "You get enough of those and it makes up for a trip where you work your butt off" and make nothing. Plus, she said, TDI can provide tickets for hard-to-get shows such as "The Lion King."

    Travel agents actually sold more than $1.7 million worth of theater tickets for TDI in 1998, earning commissions in excess of $125,000. an increase of some 16% compared with 1997, according to the company.

    For more information on TDI, call (800) 334-8457 or visit its Web site at www.theatredirect.com.

    Creating a '25 reasons' ad

    Here is more of Richard Turen's sales and marketing minutes, a new regular feature:

    Have you seen the two-page ad from Crystal Cruises that lists 100 specific reasons to book and travel with the line? I thought it was a brilliant ad because it debunked the notion that no one reads lengthy ad copy. It also made it clear that Crystal is a cruise line entitled to some bragging rights.

    But I wonder how many of us could come up with just 25 solid reasons why the consumer should use our services over a competitor's. Try it: At your next staff meeting, ask your agents to help you put together a list of reasons why you outshine your competition. This project will give your staff a renewed sense of purpose for soliciting new business. It may also serve as the basis of a powerful new ad campaign.

    If you cannot come up with 25 reasons to use your services, it may be time to reevaluate the way you do business.

    Richard Turen is managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales and marketing consulting firm, as well as president of the agency Churchill & Turen, both based in Naperville, Ill. Contact him at [email protected].

    Developing an outside sales force

    Are you an agency owner who works with outside agents -- or wants to develop a sales force of independent contractors? You may be interested in upcoming seminars held by the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (Nacta), the Valley Center, Calif.-based association for independent agents and host agencies.

    Led by Nacta president Joanie Ogg, the sessions will address topics such as how to recruit independent contractors; how to successfully integrate these agents into your agency; the legal issues involved; technological tools to use, and how to write an operations manual.

    The workshops cost $79 for Nacta members and $99 for nonmembers. Sessions will run from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and will take place at airport-area hotels in the following cities: Kansas City, Mo., Jan. 29; Las Vegas, March 5, and Atlanta, March 19.

    For more information and reservations, contact Nacta headquarters at (760) 751-1197, e-mail [email protected] or visit Nacta's Web Site at www.nacta.com where you can register on line. Space is limited, and reservations are necessary.

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