Blooming profits

Are two niches better than one? They are when one of them is seasonal, according to Yvette Brown, owner of 12-year-old Whale Travel in Miami.

Brown, who arranges whale-watching tours to Baja, Mexico, as well as New England fall-foliage and whale-watching tours, has been nurturing the seeds of a new niche that is threatening to take over the garden.

Yvette Brown.That niche -- gardening with an emphasis on orchids -- has given new life to a company that, like many other small agencies, was hard hit by commission caps.

"With the latest commission cut, I let my last employee go and I have not replaced her," Brown said.

Instead, she began to explore her own avocation as a gardener to find new clients.

"My sister asked me to lead an orchid tour to Panama, where there was a big orchid show," she said.

To make sure spouses and companions were not bored during the trip, Brown made a point of including plenty of sightseeing.

"This is how my tours have evolved, with historical sites included in the itineraries," she said.

Upon her return, she discovered that Florida abounds with orchid-growing groups and societies and that the American Orchid Society is active in preserving species all over the world.

Brown then attended an ASTA congress in Thailand, where she explored orchid farms from which many plants are exported to U.S.

Although visitors are not allowed to bring orchids back from the farms, Brown was able to find several nurseries that do allow exports.

"Orchids are one of the few plants that you can bring back into the U.S. without a problem because they grow without dirt," she said.

Her Thailand program typically involves taking participants to nurseries where they can buy and carry out orchids or have them mailed home.

"The whole thing fell into place perfectly," she said of her blossoming niche, which so far accounts for about 10% of her overall business.

"It helps if you love what you do, and it's a bonus to make money from it," said Brown, who describes herself as an "avid" gardener and the president of her garden club.

In short, she said, "there is a tremendous market out there, and I think it's a time to develop it."

Faraway gardens

One of the bonuses of specializing in gardening tours is that you can send clients to exotic destinations, according to Yvette Brown of Whale Travel in Miami.

Yvette Brown specializes in garden tours to places such as Thailand, Above, Bangkok's Grand Palace. Brown is especially interested in Thailand, which she describes as a bargain, thanks to a favorable exchange rate.

"I escort a nine-night tour once a year in October to Thailand that includes air fare from Los Angeles, hotel, breakfast, lunch, tours and flights within Thailand for $1,499 per person, double," she said.

The tours include visits to Chiang Mai, known for its factory outlets, silk umbrellas, lacquerware, silverware and handicrafts.

At the factory outlets, visitors are shown the evolution of silk from the cocoon to fabric, according to Brown, who added that jewelry, especially sapphires and other precious stones, is a bargain.

Another stop is Mae Hong Son, where clients can visit women who belong to the Karen tribe who put rings around their necks to elongate them, she said.

Other popular garden destinations include Holland during tulip season and the Chelsea flower show in England, according to Brown, who described the latter as "wall-to-wall people."

A native of Jamaica, Brown also said she is developing a program to Kingston, which she describes as a tougher sell.

"I consider these tours soft adventure because the accommodations are not luxurious and you do some hiking," she said, adding, "of course, it's all worth it if you are a gardening fanatic."

Put it in writing

Do you have a letter of introduction for your agency? If you don't, now is a good time to create one. If you do have one, when was the last time you updated it?

A letter of introduction serves many purposes, not the least of which is identifying all of the varied services you provide.

Consider a typical leisure booking. From qualifying the client to the thank-you card after he returns, write down all of the many details you attend to and the myriad services you perform. Now review the multidestination or more complicated itineraries you handle and add those services to your list. You have probably surprised yourself with the number of things you do for clients.

Lucy Hirleman.With your services in list form, you can begin an outline of your letter.

Avoid the urge to write a 10- or even a two-page letter. Your prospective client will fall asleep before turning a page. Using your list of services, write a paragraph positioning your agency as superior to or different from the competition. The next paragraph, for now, should be generic and refer to the various types of travel you handle.

Don't use laundry list words such as cruise, tour or vacation. What sounds better, going to Hawaii or taking a sunset stroll on a beach with spectacular views? Words create pictures and emotion. The better the picture, the longer it will be remembered.

Later, you can change this paragraph to suit a specific demographic, such as seniors, or a specific market segment, such as golfers. By keeping your basic letter in a word processing program, making changes will be simple.

In closing, let the readers know that you really care about their travel needs and desires. Be accurate and truthful. Don't use words like "perfect." Nothing in life is perfect, but it can be wonderful, fun or exhilarating.

Next month I'll discuss specific uses of this letter that will increase your client base.

Lucy Hirleman, CTC, MCC, owns Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J. Contact her at [email protected]; fax: (973) 208-1204.

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