By land and by sea

t wasn't something Carlos Afre had planned, but his agency created what might be called a wartime strategy: When clients are fearful and want to stay close to home, put together packages with rail or motorcoach trips to nearby cruise ports.

That was the thinking back during the Persian Gulf War, when Afre's agency, You and Leisure Tours and Travel, San Francisco, began selling cruise clients on the concept of making the trip to their port of departure a vacation in itself, with short pre- and post-cruise tours.

In the days after Sept. 11, as the agency switchboard lit up with cancellations, he dusted off the 10-year old brochures and started to revamp You and Leisure Tour's group cruise offerings for 2002.

Avoiding a trip to the airport became even more important than during the Gulf war, he said. "I knew we had to make cruises more attractive and that rail was the way to do it," said Afre.

Carlos Afre and his wife, K-K, who operate You and Leisure Tours and Travel, received a top producer award from Crystal Cruises. The agency quickly arranged December programs using Amtrak's Coast Starlight, booking space from Sacramento and San Francisco to Long Beach.

After the daylong rail trip, clients stayed for a night at a waterfront hotel prior to their sailing on Princess Cruises' Sea Princess for a seven-day cruise of the Mexican Riviera.

When the ship returned to Long Beach, clients boarded a motorcoach, which took them to the town of Solvang, where they shopped and spent the night. The next morning, the motorcoach brought them home to Northern California.

Afre priced the December departures of the nine-night packages with rates starting at $899 per person, double. He received co-op advertising funds from Princess for local TV ads on CNN. The two departures were a near sell-out.

With that success under his belt, he expanded with cruise and rail programs for 2002, offering a series from January through March, this time using Amtrak to and from Southern California in conjunction with the Mexican sailings by Princess.

Afre said he expects to carry 500 passengers on the three-month program. The agency also put together a 10-day cruise and rail package from Northern California to Seattle in May.

That program features a night in Seattle before a four-day cruise aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Radiance of the Seas and, after the cruise, a two-night stay in Portland, Ore., which is a stop on the return rail trip.

The linchpin of the concept is rail, which is a popular alternative to air these days, said Afre. "It's considered fun and safe, and the trip to Southern California and the Pacific Northwest is scenic."

-- Laura Del Rosso

Focusing on what works

arlos Afre, a native of Guatemala, has owned You and Leisure Tours and Travel since 1973. The agency, one of San Francisco's largest cruise specialists, is located on a pier along the city's picturesque waterfront, just about a five-minute walk from the cruise ship dock at Pier 35.

The agency is perhaps best known in the Bay Area for its Golden Age Travelers division, which was started in 1969 as a travel club for retired federal and local county employees. In the 1970s, Afre purchased the club list from the original owner.

Through word of mouth and direct marketing, the club has grown to 30,000 members, about 70% of whom live in Northern California. The rest are spread all over the country.

Afre operates the $10 million agency with his wife, K-K, who manages the cruise department. You and Leisure Tours has an aggressive pricing policy, offering escorted cruises with negotiated rates with major lines and air carriers.

For example, in 2001, the agency offered a $1 roundtrip air fare to London on British Airways to clients who bought a northern European cruise; three times a month, the firm sends direct mail to Golden Age members and various affinity groups it has worked with over the years.

The agency "concentrates on packages that work," said Afre, and on four lines: Princess, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America and Crystal Cruises. But business has not been all rosy at You and Leisure Tours. In September, the company was hit hard by the effects of the terrorist events and then, a few days later, the bankruptcy of Renaissance Cruises. The agency had cruise groups in Istanbul, Turkey, and in parts of Europe on Sept. 11. On Sept. 18, when Renaissance ceased operations, a large group was disembarked in Rome. Luckily, Afre said, all but four of 43 people in the group had cancellation insurance.

The agency also had 100 passengers booked on a sailing of the Norwegian Dream from Istanbul to Barcelona, Spain, set to leave Nov. 8. More than half canceled. As a result of the downturn, the agency was forced to lay off two employees from its staff of 16. But business is coming back, and Afre said he is rehiring one of the agents.

Bookings are particularly strong for sailings to South America, Alaska and Mexico and, thanks to the California and Pacific Northwest cruise and rail programs, 2002 looks to be another good year for the company, he said.

Afre's advice to other agents looking to put together cruise groups: "Be consistent with your advertising and your message. Offer unique things, such as pre- and post-stays. And be professional in your service."

Marc my words

Put clients' needs over their 'wants'

hould we always sell the client what he or she wants? After all, the client, we're told, is always right. Yet we're also told to sell the suppliers with whom we feel comfortable -- preferred suppliers with quality products and healthy commissions -- and to focus our efforts on selling their products (and profiting from their overrides).

Marc Mancini.But what if the client wants a product from a supplier that is not on your preferred list? Isn't it unethical and manipulative to try to sell a client something else, just because that supplier's commission is higher? Isn't there a conflict of interest here?

Not really, because your job is the same as it's always been: not to sell the client what he or she wants, but to sell the client what he or she needs.

This is a critical distinction because the client might not always know his or her needs. The client's travel product knowledge is far less extensive than yours, and he or she has a less sophisticated understanding of the features and benefits of the various options. You might even know that a company your client is interested in is unstable.

So qualifying the client remains the single most important step in the sales process. And product knowledge is your most important sales tool. In selecting preferred suppliers, you should always:

• Maintain a broad enough range of preferred suppliers to cover the needs of most clients. You should focus on quality first, then provide options in several price ranges so that as many clients as possible will find your recommendations attractive.

• Select suppliers on the basis of quality. Supplier excellence exists in every price range. And if your recommendation meets or exceeds your client's real needs, he or she will trust your next recommendation, too.

• Select suppliers that provide you with a mutually beneficial relationship.

It isn't enough that the supplier offers override commissions. You should also expect increased access to inventory, client upgrades, a private reservations number, co-op advertising and a genuine commitment to problem- solving.

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

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