Booking it

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o one ever said a love of literature and books could catapult a person into a career as a travel agent, but that's just what happened to Martin Rapp, Altour International's vice president and director of leisure.

Rapp had been the co-owner of the cutting-edge Traveller's Bookstore in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center. "It was the first bookstore to sell fiction and nonfiction titles about different parts of the globe in tandem with guidebooks," he said.

When Rapp and his two partners sold the bookstore, a career as a travel agent seemed a natural evolution. It was a bookstore client who helped pave the way: Barbara Gallay, owner of New York-based Linden Travel. "She said, 'You know more about destinations than a lot of my agents,' " Rapp recalled, adding that he took over the agency's leisure department.

Former bookstore owner Martin Rapp, Altour International's vice president, sees himself as a Rapp's bookstore career also helped him land his current job at Altour International. In 1994, he joined the agency's six-person office to create a leisure department in what was then a corporate agency. Lori Chemla, a former Traveller's Bookstore client and the wife of Alexandre Chemla, who owns Altour, thought he was the ideal person for the job. She had been impressed with the input he'd given her when he was still a bookstore owner, helping to plan Chemla's husband's 40th birthday party in France.

"I had always informally planned the bookstore customers' trips," Rapp said. When he became a travel counselor, those customers were eager to have Rapp officially plan their trips. "They knew I wouldn't steer them wrong," he said.

Today, Altour International has 400 employees, with regional and affiliate offices around the country and main offices in New York, Los Angeles and London. Sixty-five percent of the company's business comes from corporate bookings and 35% from leisure. "I wanted to create an absolutely unique leisure department," said Rapp. In particular, he wanted to be able to advise clients "when they may be wrong" -- for example, asking for a hotel that may be "hot" but not centrally located for their purposes.

Rapp firmly believes that his experience as a veteran traveler and agent puts him in a position to make the best decisions for that client. "For instance, I discourage people from changing hotels every night," he said. "I would rather come up with ways to stay somewhere for two or three nights and use that place as a hub." To properly execute the hub-city concept, though, travel agents must know their destinations inside and out, he said.

Properly qualifying clients is also crucial. "The first question I ask is, 'What are you interested in?' " said Rapp. Does the client like historic homes, museums, gardens? "It's all about drawing them out," he said.

Rapp added that he always asks the client for a rough budget up front: "It's important to know -- especially for hotels. I don't want to spin my wheels about going to top hotels. Why waste my time and theirs?"

The agency started charging fees after the airlines capped commissions in the 1990s."Any agent who has trouble asking for fees is out of business now," said Rapp.

The agency's fees fluctuate depending on the complexity of a trip. "If they want three weeks of every lunch and dinner booked, then the fee can go up to $1,000," he said.

Clients have to recognize that agents provide a service, just as, say, lawyers do, Rapp said. "One of my first clients to balk about service fees was a lawyer," he said. Rapp responded by comparing agents and attorneys. "I said, 'If you do a will for me, five years later I have to update it and you're going to charge me even though it's only updating. I come to you because you're a great lawyer, and you come to me because I'm a great travel agent.' "

Rapp is known in the office as the Professor. If, for instance, a fellow agent needs to know the restaurant of the moment in Paris, he invariably knows the answer. His mind records every detail of virtually every trip he takes. "I remember what I like," Rapp said. "I use myself as the model for all of my clients."

It should come as no surprise that the agency's New York office includes a library of 1,000-plus books. Nor should it come as a surprise that Rapp has appeared as a commentator on the Travel Channel and is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine.

Rapp believes in what he delivers."What I am here to do is give people a memorable trip," he said. "Whether it's a day or a month, it should be very special."

The Perfect Itinerary
Five scenic days in South Africa

oseph Vos, a travel counselor at New York-based Valerie Wilson Travel International, designed a five-day Namibia/South Africa itinerary that he said showcases some of the world's most breathtaking scenery. Vos works closely with Trans Africa Safaris in Cape Town, South Africa, when designing Namibia and South Africa itineraries. "I roughly outline what I want, and they work out the details and provide all of the support people," he said.

Clients can see game animals at Etosha National Park in Namibia. DAY ONE

From Windhoek, Namibia's capital, clients fly to Sossusvlei and the Kulula Desert Lodge, which is situated amid 46,000 acres of private reserve that borders the Namib-Naukluft Park. A Dune Hopper takes guests to tour the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei, reportedly the highest in the world at nearly 1,000 feet. "It's the most incredible thing to see elephants and other wild game animals in an almost desolate desert," said Vos. "It's just unreal. Scenically, this is one of the most extraordinary things you'll ever see."

DAY TWO

In the morning, there is an optional balloon safari to Sossusvlei to view the red dunes, with a champagne breakfast served at the landing site.

In the afternoon, clients fly to Swakopmund, one of Namibia's resort areas, to board the ultra-luxury Rovos Rail. This all-suite train accommodates 72 guests. The overnight journey takes clients through landscapes that vary from desert to mountains to more verdant bush.

DAY THREE

In the morning, the train arrives at Tsumeb, where clients transfer to Etosha National Park for a game drive. They overnight at the Mokuti Lodge.

DAY FOUR

Clients reboard the train for a trip back to Windhoek and a tour of this German colonial-style city. Then they transfer to the Okapuka Ranch, situated at the foot of the dramatic Onyanti Mountains, for a game drive and lion feeding.

DAY FIVE

After more train time, clients arrive the next morning at Holoog Siding in South Africa for a tour of the Fish River Canyon, the Grand Canyon of South Africa.

Then they get back on the train for a trip to the Kimberley diamond mine and museum and a visit to the Big Hole -- the deepest manmade hole in the world. From Kimberley, clients take the Rovos Rail to Pretoria, South Africa, where the itinerary ends.

Hand in Hand
Going the extra mile

hat a difference a sales call can make. A few years ago, Jonathan Orr-Ewing, general manager of London's Montcalm Hotel Nikko, was in the U.S. to visit travel agencies. He paid a call to Century Travel in Atlanta, where he met Claire Schoeder, a travel counselor who specializes in the U.K.

During the visit, Orr-Ewing encouraged Schoeder to feel free to call or e-mail him if he could help her sell the hotel. He also encouraged her to pay a visit to the property.

Claire Schoeder turned to hotel rep Jonathan Orr-Ewing for help in selling London (above, Parliament). "The next time I was in London, I took the time to tour the hotel and fell in love with it," she said.

The hotel, with 120 rooms and suites, is located near the Marble Arch at Great Cumberland Place.

Now, Schoeder almost always deals directly with Orr-Ewing when booking clients at the Montcalm. When she needs a favor -- be it an upgrade or early check-in -- Orr-Ewing comes through.

Schoeder said he also provides her with extremely competitive rates. And then there are the little extras, like the occasional complimentary dinner or lunch, which mean so much to the client.

Schoeder's clients never fail to come back raving about the hotel's superlative service -- and her ability to go the extra mile on their behalf.

For his part, Orr-Ewing said it is his goal to elevate the status of the travel agent in the client's eyes.

"I want her to look good to her clients," he said, "because she's my client."

In fact, Orr-Ewing said he's delighted if clients go home having something like this to say to their friends: My agent booked us into the Montcalm. She knows the people there so well she got us a lovely dinner compliments of the manager.

It's an arrangement, after all, that works well for travel agent and manager alike.

"Hand in Hand" highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to Agent Life editor Claudette Covey at [email protected].

Going Home
Why I kept my ARC number

henever I meet other travel agents and they learn that I now operate my full-service travel agency, K L Travel Inc., from my home in Scarsdale, N.Y., I am often met with a great deal of skepticism.

My fellow agents ask when, how and why I decided to go home. I often surprise them when they ask me, "Did you keep your ARC number?" My answer is yes.

In 1990, when I opened my agency, I had to fulfill a very rigorous application process to qualify for an ARC appointment. One of the requirements was that my agency could operate only out of commercially zoned office space.

By 2000, after living through the many dramatic changes in the industry, I knew that I needed to implement cost controls and relocate my office to survive.

Millicent Lee Kaufman.By then, ARC rules had changed. Under the Independent Entities option, an ARC-approved agent's principal place of business no longer has to be a commercial space, as long as ticket security rules are met and there is no signage or general access to the public.

After filing a simple application form to switch from a full-service to a restricted-access agency, I moved with my staff and K L Travel became a home-based office.

I had worked very hard to establish my business and build a strong reputation and carefully honed identity. I liked the hands-on approach of running a business and answering only to myself.

So I kept my ARC number -- unlike many others reacting to a difficult environment for travel agencies. Many agency owners either began sharing space with others or merged with other agencies, no longer owners or directors but independent contractors under the umbrella of a host agency. Many kept their names but not their ARC numbers, trying to appear the same when, in fact, they were working for another company.

I felt uncomfortable about merging, giving up my ARC number and my independent status. I did not want to confuse or lose credibility with my clients or give them the illusion that I was not doing well by running my business through a third party. I wanted to maintain my professional image and continuity with my clients.

Keeping my ARC number enables me to do that. It also enables me to keep my business options open and to remain flexible.

If the economic climate improves, with an ARC number I am in an excellent position to respond quickly to broaden my opportunities and even to expand to commercial space. If and when that happens, I have my agency name -- and my ARC number.

Millicent Lee Kaufman has been a travel agent for 21 years, owning her own agency for 13 of those years. She has operated a home-based agency since November 2000. E-mail her at [email protected].

5 Things
To keep in mind when writing a direct-mail letter:

1. Target your audience as precisely as possible. "It's estimated that 60% of all sales and marketing communications are sent to the wrong person," said Bob Stalbaum, a Havertown, Pa.-based travel industry consultant. "For a direct- mail campaign to be successful, you've got to reach the right person." Stalbaum said he calls a company two or three times to ensure he's sending his letter to the firm's decision-maker.

2. Communicate with each prospect on an ongoing basis. "Once you know who the targeted individual is, you want to communicate with that person over a sustained period of time," said Stalbaum. "Most of my campaigns include three to six letters spaced out over several weeks or months."

3. Make sure you're offering a great product or service. "You have to have something to offer people that is of genuine interest to them" to get even the beginning of a response, said Stalbaum. "The 'same old, same old' is not going to motivate people the way you want."

4. Actively strive to intrigue and interest the letter's recipients. "You really need to move people from a passive state to an active state when communicating with them," Stalbaum said. To that end, he suggested using unusual envelopes and strong headlines in the body of the letter. "Sometimes I'll use envelopes with inclusions," he said. "No one will throw an envelope away that has some weight in it." He's also found that people tend to open envelopes that are addressed in calligraphy.

5. Write your first paragraph as if you only had two inches of space to tell your whole story. "You have to use the beginning of the letter to really draw people in," said Stalbaum. "If you are writing with style and flair, the reader will read what you have to say. This is not something that is easy to do. It takes some skill."

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