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.
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
"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
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
"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
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].
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.
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
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
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].
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."