Cultural specialists

estination specialists at Los Angeles-based Martin's Travel & Tours are avid supporters of programs that transform agents into destination experts.

Roxanna Galbreath, a three-year veteran at Martin Travel, said that her becoming a specialist on Hawaii's Oahu and Portugal has changed her view of her role as an agent.

"We have stopped being agents for tourists and have become specialists on different cultures."

This has required gaining extensive knowledge into the destination's history, customs, arts, food, flora and fauna and physical attractions, she said.

"You can't sell a [destination] without knowing about its culture and how it came to be what it is today," she said.

This past winter, Galbreath escorted nine clients on a cultural gardens tour of Oahu.

The staff of Los Angeles-based Martin's Travel & Tours at Senator Fong's Gardens during an Oahu fam trip. Her clients were exposed to the history of Hawaii by exploring several Oahu sites, such as the Bishop's Museum, Hawaii's Plantation Village and the Mission Houses Museum.

A variety of public and private gardens were featured on the tour, as well as an archaeological hike to ancient religious sites.

"I couldn't just show people the gardens," Galbreath said, "without explaining how the history and culture of the islands had affected the [sites]."

Galbreath said she would like to run more cultural tours; she plans to market them in states with colder climates, as interest in Hawaii is waning in Southern California, where it is not considered all that exotic.

She said the assistance and support from the Oahu Visitors Bureau has made all the difference in the practical application of her Oahu specialist training.

The bureau "has been successful in conveying the Hawaiian spirit that has helped grow our enthusiasm and passion so that we don't have to sell the destination -- it just flows out of us," she said.

Galbreath said she has never had as much in-depth training and cultural experiences as she has with the island of Oahu.

Martin's Travel's Roxanna Galbreath, right, is an Oahu and Portugal specialist. She has been to Hawaii 10 times, six in the last three years. "I know a lot about other destinations, but the insider information I've [been exposed to] allows me to offer repeat clients different itineraries each time," she said.

In addition, Galbreath became a Portugal expert last year after completing an online training course and participating in a fam trip.

In June, she escorted 20 clients on a two-week Portugal trip, which featured a tour of the country's central region and a cruise of the Douro River.

Galbreath picked Portugal because she has a natural interest in the country and has traveled there several times.

"I like selling Portugal because it is 'doable' -- it's not so vast that I feel overwhelmed by it," she said.

Galbreath said she is now interested in taking an advanced Portugal course and more on-site training.

"The online course has made me more conscious of tourist boards' educational programs as a means of expanding my destination knowledge and allowing me to talk more extensively about the areas I sell," she said.

Galbreath isn't the only specialist on hand at Martin's Travel & Tours. Jo Keita, a consultant for four years at the agency, is a specialist on west and central Africa and will soon earn her Oahu specialist designation.

Keita became interested in west Africa before she began working for Martin's Travel; in 1995, she organized a trip to the region for her church.

After the success of that first trip, she began organizing two groups a year and, in 1998, Keita coordinated trips for four groups totaling about 120 people.

"West Africa was a difficult sell at first because consumers didn't know about it," she said, "so I spent most of my funds advertising the diversity of the area."

Specialist Jo Keita, right, is pictured with a historian in front of the slave house museum on the island of Goree, Senegal. Keita said she now emphasizes what consumers will experience on the trip and recommends that prospective clients speak to past ones.

"Although [Galbreath and I] book different types of tours, we share information," she said.

"My recent training has opened my eyes to selling Oahu and letting clients know that Hawaii is not only about visiting the outer islands; it has many similarities to west Africa," she said.

Keita said the Oahu Visitors Bureau didn't start promoting its off-the-beaten path attractions and activities until two years ago. "Now Oahu has really gone to extremes to promote itself in various ways that emphasize the undiscovered parts of its [history]," she said.

As a result of these efforts and as she has become more familiar with Oahu, it has become Keita's favorite island in the chain. "I thought I had seen all there was to Hawaii until I did this specialist training," she said. "I never knew Hawaiian culture was such a mix of ethnic groups until I learned about its history."

-- Michele San Filippo

The middleman is alive and well

e sell stuff that we don't keep in our shop. Put any spin you like on it, but that, at its core, is what we do as travel professionals.

So given our industry's inbred lack of confidence in its own future survival, it is to be expected that we cringe in horror whenever we hear some analyst claim that we, the middlemen, are dying.

But is there any truth to these analytical statements?

In the March edition of Source Inc. magazine, writer Anne Stuart pointed out that the death of the middleman ranks "among technology's champion myths, almost as big a no-show as the Y2K bug." Not bad.

Richard Turen.The problem is that more than one-third of the people who buy a product on line are going to need that same product serviced.

But who out there is going to service it for them?

Factor in the percentage of clients who will have questions to ask of the salesperson, and you start looking at a serious amount of folks who desperately want a middleman to explain things for them.

This, I suspect, is even more true when you are in the dream-fulfillment business.

As our professional lives evolve, we always have to ask ourselves why the client really needs us.

The Internet has produced some challenges for our businesses and the travel industry as a whole, but it is clearly helping to create a new series of job definitions for travel agents.

The best agents out there are realizing that what the consumers really want is someone to facilitate and define the best of the travel options offered to them.

This becomes increasingly important today as shoppers are being inundated with an endless array of online travel "promises" allegedly offering them the best deals around.

Therefore, we need to become the go-to gurus of travel -- able and willing to point out the good, the bad and, in the case of certain specific hotels that come to mind, the ugly.

Richard Turen is an industry consultant and travel agency president. Contact him at [email protected].

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