Somewhere between Thanksgiving pies and Christmas gingerbread lies
the annual impetus to shed those holiday pounds and get in shape.
But while some of us are content to exercise for a few weeks
before relapsing into our couch-potato ways, others pound the
pavement year-round with discipline and constancy.
It is to this latter group that Thomas Gilligan, president of
Marathon Tours and Travel in Charlestown, Mass., caters.
The agency, a full-service Carlson Wagonlit affiliate that sells
98% leisure travel, was founded in 1979 with an eye to serving
marathon runners. In other words, Gilligan had a good idea, and he
ran with it.
"I recognized that I wanted to focus on a specialty, and since I
was running and had my finger on the pulse of the running movement,
I had a gut feeling that there would be a demand for runners to go
to international events," he said.
About 80% of the company's sales are bookings for sets of two
people looking to travel to a running event, Gilligan said.
In 1986, he moved to more of a retail location in a gentrified
section of Boston, thereby attracting the walk-ins that account for
the other 20% of his business.
One of the reasons runners like to travel so much, Gilligan
said, is that the average person can participate in big events
alongside superstars, unlike most other sports, such as golf and
In addition, the big name marathons attract large numbers of
people -- the New York marathon draws 32,000 runners annually;
London, 40,000 -- which can translate into large group
As to frequency of travel, he said, "The average marathon runner
will run two marathons a year, but we have clients who will run 15
to 20 a year and will fly to four or five events."
Another advantage to the niche is that marathons take place
year-round, Gilligan said, although spring and fall in North
America and Europe are especially busy.
"But we also have Bermuda in January and Antarctica in
February," he said, adding that the latter program -- which
accommodates 138 people -- typically is sold out about a year in
This despite the high price tag of about $4,000 to $5,000 per
person, Gilligan said, explaining: "Many runners will run a
marathon at any cost because it's become such a part of their
-- Felicity Long
The lowdown on profits
While selling travel to marathon runners is about as specific a
niche as one can get, Thomas Gilligan shared some of his more
generic rules for selling special- interest travel
successfully.Know your niche. "I and another person in our office are
serious marathon runners, which means we know what's important to
the market," Gilligan said.
Booking hotels near the finish line is important, Gilligan said,
as is the arranging of pre-race pasta dinners and escorted training
Know your market. Gilligan noted that runners tend to be
well-heeled professionals, such as doctors and lawyers with Type A
personalities who have traveled expensively and have exacting
"Most people see a guy in shorts, sweaty T-shirt and beat-up
shoes and they think he's a student, but the opposite is often
true," he said, adding that typical clients will opt for four- or
five-star hotels.Exploit your hobbies. "Travel agents should look toward their
personal interests," Gilligan said. "For example, if you're a
gardener, there are garden societies that travel to tulip festivals
and flower festivals, or if you're a bird-watcher, there are a
number of companies that specialize in that niche.
"No matter what your recreational interest, there are people
pursuing it around the world."Be a full-service agency. Gilligan said a significant amount of
his business is from runners who want customized itineraries
including post-event sightseeing.Go cyber. "People are afraid of the technology of creating a
Web site, but once you get past the start-up, it's quite easy to
maintain," Gilligan said, adding that agents should shop around for
a reasonable consultant.
You don't want to be restricted to your local market, he said.
Gilligan's site, at www.marathontour.com, enables him to reach runners all
over North America, he said.
Think about it
Remember the first time you heard a male telephone operator?
The first time you saw a female trucker?
The first time you heard an African-American singing a
We believe ours is an enlightened age, a 21st century sort of
For most of us, racism, ethnicism, ageism and sexism clearly are
not what society should be about.
Yet why did the above three examples produce a jolt when we
first experienced them?
Is it that
we all have expectations about various groups of people that we've
never thought through?
And that these expectations remain so buried in society's fabric
and so hidden in our unconscious, that they tend to endure?
Now, do the following exercise:
Select two or three travel supplier brochures.
Thumb through the pages.
How many African-American clients do you see?
One? Two? Perhaps none at all.
Yet we all know that minorities regularly take cruises, stay at
hotels and take tours all the time.
So what's going on here?
Let me tell you a story.
I once was hired by the tourist board of a Caribbean island.
My assignment: To suggest improvements for its promotional ads
I did my research and discovered that this island nation was the
No. 1 tropical destination for African-Americans.
When I finally gave my report, I pointed out that not one black
tourist was depicted in its materials, which made no marketing
(There were plenty of blacks in service capacities, though.)
I could have heard a pin drop in that boardroom.
That was because every one of that island nation's attendees at
my presentation was black.
The moral is this: Prejudices can exist unrecognized. They can
even exist among minorities themselves.
So where is this going?
I'm fairly convinced that most people exclude minorities from
their thinking out of habit, not hatred.
But I also believe that excluding minorities is not just wrong,
it makes bad business sense.
Whether you're a travel agent or a supplier, you should never
omit minorities from your sales marketing strategies.
Indeed, because they've so long been unrecognized as the
formidable market segments they are, minorities and the "mosaic
travel" they represent could easily become a major profit center
for you, a fruitful niche for you to learn, serve and profit
Just something to think about.
Marc Mancini is a professor of travel at West Los Angeles