Born to run

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.

Thomas Gilligan began Marathon Tours and Travels in 1979 to focus on serving runners. "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 tennis.

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 bookings.

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 advance.

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 lives."

-- 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 runs.

    The home page for Thomas Gilligan's Marathon Tours and Travel.

  • 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 standards.
  • "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 country-western song?

    We believe ours is an enlightened age, a 21st century sort of time.

    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?

    Marc Mancini.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?

    Or Asians?

    Or Hispanics?

    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 and videos.

    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 sense.

    (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?

    A sermon?

    Not really.

    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 from.

    Just something to think about.

    Marc Mancini is a professor of travel at West Los Angeles College.

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