Charitable efforts

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Susan Weissberg knows a thing or two about tough times in the travel business. She was working for an agency in Tel Aviv during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, a job that combined the challenge of handling customer needs in wartime with attending to personal safety.

On top of that, with only three years in the business, she had been left to run the agency because her two bosses were "fighting for their lives" in the war, she said. "That toughened me for anything in travel."

While in Israel, as a result of volunteering at hospitals, she became involved with the NAVAH Organization, a charity that she still raises funds for.

It is an organization that assists the victims of terror, without regard to ethnic background; it helps "any whose lives have been torn out from under them," she said.

The volunteer work in Israel can be seen as the start of a lifelong devotion to philanthropic endeavors, although, to be precise, Weissberg said, it all really started with her mother, who kept a charity box in their home in Canada's Alberta province and encouraged the kids to donate their pennies.

Weissberg left "beautiful and wonderful" Alberta because warmer climates suited her better. Israel fit the bill, as did Florida, where she has lived since 1983.

In 1987, she and a partner (whom Weissberg later bought out) bought Wyllys Professional Travel from Harold Binder. Weissberg moved it from Miami Beach to Coral Gables, where it is now located in the annex to the Westin Colonnade Hotel.

The agency, with 24 staff and hosted independent contractors, all on a commission pay system, is about 50-50 corporate-leisure, said Weissberg, who is the agency president.

Wyllys, with clients from all over the world, is unique for its global reach, she said. Some of its clients first came to the agency when they were guests at the Westin. The agency and overseas customers do business via e-mail or cell phone, Weissberg said.

The agency also can boast that staffers speak seven languages, and Weissberg herself speaks four of them: English, French, Hebrew and Spanish. (Staff also can assist travelers in Arabic, Italian and Portuguese.)

Nevertheless, about half the clients are Floridians, and regardless of locale or worldly rank, she said, "we treat them all as if they were our only clients." That includes giving customers access to her or her staff around the clock. "My clients can call me day or night," she said. "And believe me, they do."

The agency emphasizes exotic travel. "All agents have in-depth experience, and I encourage them to go to the exotic destinations. ... Seeing is selling." She might also have said that doing is selling: Weissberg became a certified scuba diver in order to better sell scuba trips.

Weissberg said the key to success for her agency was "the contacts I've established worldwide over 37 years. They allow me to break wait lists and get upgrades for clients." Upgrades and other value-added amenities on cruises and land bookings were key reasons for her agency's membership in Ensemble.

Weissberg, a member of the Ensemble board, was the leader of an Ensemble group of clients to Vietnam in 2001. During a side journey to Cambodia, she said that she was "deeply moved" by the poverty and particularly by the fact rural Cambodians did not have clean water.

This situation "had been on my mind for many years," she said, when in 2006 a client returned from Cambodia and said: "We have to do something."

So the pair began raising funds to install safe drinking wells for the boat people of Siem Reap; the first well has been installed, with more to come.

Other activities have local beneficiaries. Several years ago, Weissberg said, one of her agents was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which inspired her to work with Royal Caribbean International as the cruise line's liaison with the Multiple Sclerosis Society in connection with a fashion show fund-raiser that yielded $300,000 for the society. She said her employee "is an inspiration to me," and she expects a continued involvement with other fund-raisers.

Another favorite charity of Weissberg's is the Funding Arts Network in Miami. Weissberg helps the organization raise funds used as grants to support new talent. The group will raise and distribute more than $200,000 this year, she said.

This is not an exhaustive list of Weissberg's commitments, past and present. In addition, she said, "My work is not finished." She would like to expand the clean-wells project to other countries."

She also dreams of creating an arts scholarship for students at risk, and she would like to see the Funding Arts Network raise enough money to approve all worthy grant requests, instead of the 25% of grant requests that it can fund today.

Think you're a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Nadine Godwin, Agent Life editor, at [email protected], and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put "Agent Life" in the subject line.

Marc My Words

Dealing with the dreaded questions

By Marc Mancini

Talk to any travel industry speaker, trainer or consultant and they'll tell you this: The same half-dozen questions regularly and predictably come up.

As a result, most speakers have developed tried, true and, hopefully, insightful responses to these typical questions. The answers may sound off the cuff, but they're well rehearsed.

A few questions, though, defy a simple, single solution. Presenters sometimes call them the "dreaded questions." They're the ones that have no pat, prepared response, or at least an answer that totally solves the issue.

Over the years, three such questions have flustered me.

The first: "What should I say when my client asks, 'What's the best cruise line?' "

I recently solved that one: "The best cruise line is the one that best fits your needs. So let me ask you a few questions ..."

A good answer to my second dreaded question still eludes me: "What should I do when the wife wants one kind of vacation but the husband wants something totally different?"

In some cases, the right destination solves this dilemma. More often, you end up being a referee, with one client on the phone, the other in the background. (Inevitably, they don't realize that you can hear them both.)

I need your help on this one. If you have a creative way of dealing with out-of-sync couples, send it along to the letters editor at Travel Weekly, at [email protected].

My final dreaded question is: "How can you control a customer who talks too much?"

In an era when time is precious, chatterboxes are an awful drain on efficiency and profitability. Even worse, they hijack your sales process.

Here are ideas that some front-line phone salespeople recently shared with me:

" Be alert to the moment when the talker pauses to take a breath (yes, they do breathe). At that instant, slip in and comment positively on something they've just said -- they'll usually stop to savor your comment -- then move directly to closing the sale.

" Stop making "feedback sounds." As we listen, we tend to say "uh-huh," "yes," and "really?" to reassure a caller that we're listening and, in the cell phone era, that we're still there.

When a person has been talking too long, stop making those reassuring sounds. They'll feel uncomfortable or believe that they've been cut off. Take advantage of this brief confusion to step back into the conversation and retake control.

" Ask only closed-ended questions. Usually, open-ended questions like "What did you do on your last vacation?" generate the richest insights. With a talker, though, open-ended questions are dangerous. Stick to closed-ended questions that elicit simple, factual answers. This may help.

" Sometimes what my mother calls a "white lie" is the solution. Cut into the conversation by saying, "I don't want to interrupt you, but another client has an appointment with me in 10 minutes. Let's see if we can pull your plans together before I go." This approach enables you to interrupt without being blatantly impolite.

A variation: Tell them at the very beginning that you'll have to finish by a certain time because of another client appointment and also because they might lose the reservation if it doesn't get made now.

" If you need to give informationto someone that you know will eat up your time, respond by e-mail or voice-mail; for example, call their home number if you're pretty sure they're at work.

" If you must speak to them,call when they're at work but are likely to be in a hurry, like just before lunch or at the end of the day.

" If it's a face-to-face situation,ask them to join you as you go, say, to the convenience store next door. Once you get there, make your little purchase, conclude your conversation with the proper niceties and go back to work, leaving them at the store.

Even more effective: Walk them from your workspace, then explain you're going to the bathroom.

Remember, some people contact you with no intention of buying travel. Their goal is to have an audience for their thoughts, using the possibility of a purchase as the bait.

Don't waste your time and energy trying to get someone like this back on track. They have no track. They'll probably never book anything. Start talking and, in mid-sentence, disconnect the call. Accept no calls for five minutes, and pray they go on to torture someone else.

Marc Mancini is an industry speaker and consultant who teaches at West Los Angeles College.

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