Client turned employee

In November 1994, Courtney Gail Whitehead and her family were planning to go on a South African safari. She went to the local bookstore to start her research.

CourtneyWanting more information than could be found in guidebooks, she headed to Strong Travel, an upscale agency in Dallas owned by Nancy Strong. Whitehead had seen a profile of Strong in the Wall Street Journal and clipped the article for future reference. Strong had traveled to South Africa and was able to give Whitehead more information on the destination.

During the booking process, the two women discovered a natural rapport. They realized that they were both from New York, had traveled to many of the same places and shared a love for travel. They had spoken for about 90 minutes when Strong asked Whitehead if she was interested in becoming a travel agent. At the time, Whitehead was working as a small events planner. Whitehead, whose husband often called her a "frustrated travel agent," decided to give it some thought.

What started out as a typical client-agent situation soon turned into an owner-employee relationship. Whitehead attended the American Airlines Travel Academy near Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, where she was trained to work on Sabre. In March 1995, Whitehead joined Strong's agency, where she worked in-house for two-and-a-half years.

About a year ago, she decided to become an outside sales agent for Strong Travel. Whitehead works out of her Dallas home using Sabre and last year generated more than $100,000 for Strong Travel. She acts as a corporate agent for her husband's company in addition to planning leisure trips for her family and friends.

For Whitehead, the best thing about becoming a travel agent is the excitement of planning trips with clients. "People dream about taking trips, they save for them, and it's a great feeling helping them achieve their dream," she said.

TK Title

NancySometimes the best employee is the one sitting right in front of you, in the client's chair. Nancy Strong, owner of Strong Travel in Dallas, realized that client Courtney Gail Whitehead would be a natural as a travel agent. "What caught my attention was that she was well traveled and had been to places I sell to my clientele," Strong said. She also figured that Whitehead's Dallas social circle (Whitehead is a member of the Junior League) could benefit the agency by generating potential customers. Other positive factors were the prospect's personality and presentation skills.

Once she'd hired Whitehead, Strong was also impressed by how her new employee kept up with the latest on destinations. "She always asks, 'Did you see this article?' It's become a game between the two of us, to see who could come up with the latest information. And in her own quiet, pleasant way, she has sales ability. She doesn't hit you over the head with it, but she can make a place sound very exciting [to clients]," Strong said.

Strong added that owners trying to pick potential employees from their client pool should keep an eye open for good salespeople. "You want someone who can excite you with a sales pitch and sell you a dream," she said.

Net News

  • EuroCruises. Look here for the New York-based company's itineraries and rates plus details on ships and shore excursions. A search feature allows you to hone in on cruises meeting specific criteria, including travel dates, geographic region, particular ship, departure city and price range. Sail on over to: www.eurocruises.com
  • Toronto Star City Search. What's doing with the Canadian Opera Company? Are there any interesting exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum? This site is a good place to pick up information about what's happening around Toronto in the areas of arts and entertainment. Go to: www.toronto.com
  • Compiled by Jennifer Dorsey. E-mail suggestions to [email protected].

    Pitching the corporate account

    Trying to market yourself to corporations? Consider the following tips from industry educator Larry Mersereau, presented at the recent Amadeus subscriber conference:

  • Address marketing materials, or your presentation, to an individual. Though marketers use the term "business-to-business marketing" to describe selling to corporations, remember that you are, first and foremost, dealing with an individual human being rather than a corporation.
  • Identify the prospect's greatest problems. For example, let's say you've decided to address law firms with fewer than five partners, all facing the problem of limited clerical staff -- which leads to the fear of losing money because they don't have time to double-check their nonrefundable tickets.
  • Position your agency as the solution to their problems.
  • Blow them away with benefits. Learn to take the features that you have -- such as 24-hour service and free delivery -- and describe exactly how these features will benefit clients.
  • Shiver me timbers

    With Halloween coming, it seemed a good time to ask agents what they're most afraid of in the coming year.

    "Just the usual concerns that the economy would keep people from having enough income to allow them to travel for pleasure. I'm also always worried that things won't go smoothly on my clients' trips. Some things are just out of our control, and I worry until they're back home and they call me up to say they had a wonderful time." -- Ann Litt, president

    Undiscovered Britain, Philadelphia

    Nancy"Tricks like razor blades in the apples or commission cuts in the ARC report!" -- Nancy Johnson, owner, Johnson Travel, Research Triangle Park, N.C.

    "The word scared is not a part of my vocabulary. I always feel that there is an option, though sometimes I have to dig a little bit more. Still, we're in a continuously challenged profession, and right now it's becoming a lot harder to find small joys in the doing." -- Roxana Lewis, owner, Chartwell Travel, Inglewood, Calif.

    "I fear a major global economic downturn that will affect the entire travel industry. Then there's the possibility of seeing more agency-owner friends either sell their businesses (if they're lucky) or just close the doors and walk away. I'm also afraid that one day I may stop loving the daily challenge of this business." -- Lucy Hirleman, owner, Berkshire Travel, Newfoundland, N.J.

    "I'm not going to worry about the commission cuts at this point. I can't sit here and worry about the sky falling. All you can worry about is what you can make better today. I am worried about anybody who's not ready to grasp technology. If you don't, it's going to eat you. I've seen people stuck in their own little cocoons, going day by day, and you've got to be one step ahead of things these days." -- Eric Ardolino, owner, A&S Travel Center, Wallingford, Conn.

    Confessions of a Web junkie

    What does it take to become an Internet-savvy agent? Just some free time and the interest, according to J. J. Lasne of Sundance Travel in San Francisco, who regularly contributes ideas on interesting sites to Travel Weekly.

    "Just get on the Internet and start surfing. It's much more user-friendly than the CRS," he noted. "The major problem is finding what you're looking for," he added. "You can get 3 million pages [when you type in a request], so it helps to try several different search engines."

    Lasne, who tends to surf when business is slow at his agency, said he checks out weather sites frequently for his clients. Another favorite site for this native of France is www.paris.org. "I use it to give Paris-bound clients tips on public transportation."

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