Curing the stay-at-home blues

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When you're a home-based agent, it's easy to feel isolated. So when independent contractors Dianne Watson, from Largo, Fla., and Mary Scholten, from Grand Rapids, Mich., met in an America Online travel agents' chat room, they began to e-mail each other regularly for moral support.

Today, that initial connection has expanded into Independent Travel Professionals Network (ITPN), a group of 12 outside agents who provide a "really good networking connection on line," according to ITPN member Linda Androlia, an independent agent who owns Sunstone Tours in Malibu, Calif.

Each of the women (so far the group has just female members) has her own travel specialty, ranging from the Caribbean to Australia. Members are located in eight states -- Florida, Michigan, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey and Maryland and two agents each from California and Pennsylvania -- and are located far enough away from each other to avoid competition.

Sharing tips and information is the group's biggest benefit. Although Androlia is now an Aussie specialist, she was clueless about life Down Under when she had to handle clients who were Sydney-bound. Without the aid of two ITPN members, "I wouldn't have known where to start," she said.

Members also help each other with marketing hints, share information on seminars and help with their respective client newsletters. Everyone is expected to write extensive reports on any fam trips they take, which are archived on the group file.

Although some members of the group have bumped into each other on their trips, they're planning a "little convention" in September in New Orleans for a full-scale in-person meeting. "We do a lot for each other," said Androlia. "If you're working from your home, you don't have anyone to bounce ideas off. We keep each others' spirits up."

The group is open to new members who fit the criteria of being independent contractors with a specialty, who have been working at least three years in the travel business. Although they would especially love to recruit a ski specialist, they're open to hearing from anyone who's qualified; interested agents can e-mail [email protected].

Forming an on-line network

Linda's siteIf you want to form your own networking group on line, consider these hints from Linda Androlia, an outside agent at Sunstone Tours in Malibu, Calif., and a member of the Independent Travel Professionals Network (ITPN, profiled above).

  • Log in daily. Regular interactions cement the bonds between members.
  • Keep clear goals for the group. Sharing information -- especially about the members' specialties -- is the No. 1 reason for keeping ITPN going, Androlia said.
  • Have a well-defined procedure for getting new members. At ITPN, three people form the membership committee -- and "if we see somebody on the America Online or Internet boards who sounds like they'd fit into the group, we check them out," said Androlia.
  • Have clear-cut criteria for membership. "We require three years' experience and [accept] no inside agents," said Androlia. Most important, she added, is being somebody "who will contribute to the group, not just take from us. We had to drop two members who just weren't knowledgeable or experienced enough."
  • Organize e-mail messages. "Some people don't have time to read jokes or personal messages, so we decided to label them nontravel-related. On busy days I just delete them."
  • Realize there will be personality conflicts sometimes. "It's like a city," Androlia said of her group. "When you get 12 women in a room together [as happens when the group chats in instant message real time], you know what's going to happen."
  • A radical proposal to professionalize our industry

    Richard TurenThe industry has been inundated with people who have purchased their credentials.

    Tens of thousands of consumers are being urged to claim the benefits of being a travel agent without the need for time-consuming professional experience and education.

    We need to professionalize this industry, and we need to do it quickly. Nothing could help accomplish this faster than the elimination of traditional fam trips and automatic agent discounts.

    Imagine what would happen to our relationship with suppliers if they all, in unison, announced that they were eliminating industry discounts that are offered indiscriminately. Imagine how much our industry would be changed if all suppliers agreed to extend industry discounts exclusively to those agents capable of creating and directing serious business in their direction.

    Will this ever happen? I'm afraid not. So far, I'm the only member of the Committee to End Automatic Industry Discounts.

    Richard Turen is managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales and marketing

    consulting firm, as well as president of the agency

    Churchill & Turen Ltd., both based in Naperville, Ill. Contact him at [email protected]

    The skeptical Web surfer

    The Internet is a treasure trove of travel sites -- but surfers can get capsized by the waves of misinformation out there. In fact, the New York Times recently led off a story about the skepticism required in Web surfing with the following anecdote: "Tourists drove six hours to Mankato, Minn., in search of underground caves and hot springs mentioned on a Web site. When they arrived, there were no such attractions."

    The piece, written by Tina Kelly, continued: "Experts on Internet research point out that the Web is largely unregulated and unchecked, and so they agree it is wise to be skeptical: Consider the source ... Is the information up to date and traceable? Can it be verified, or the source checked, off line?"

    Here are more tips on checking out Web-based information from a related piece:

  • To find out exactly who's running a site, go to http://rs.internic.net and use the "whois" search of the database of registered domain names run by Internic, the registry for the most recognized categories of Internet domains.
  • Beware of the hidden agendas of those running sites. For example, the Web site on the National Coalition for Ergonomics would seem to promise some good information on ergonomics -- but a closer look at the site shows that it's run by an alliance of businesses concerned about the high cost of protecting workers from repetitive strain injuries.
  • Web surfers beware: Part 2

    Here are more cautions for the Web surfer making sure a site has trustworthy information, adapted from a recent piece in the New York Times:

    l Spelling and grammatical errors are an important red flag. "Lack of attention to such detail could indicate less-than-rigorous content," wrote Tina Kelly in the piece, though "some sites run by non-English speakers can be an exception."

    l It helps to note whether a site's address ends with .com (for commercial), .org (technically for nonprofit organizations), .gov (for government), .net (for network) or .edu (for educational). "While many .edu sites describe bona fide research, others are individual home pages of people affiliated with the institution, with information that is harder to verify," wrote Kelly. "It is also true that anybody with a little bit of money can get a .com, .org or .net site, so the suffix is in no way definitive -- a strip miner could register lovetheenvironment.org."

    "If you see a tilde (as in ~jdoe) in a Web site's address, that's usually a sign of a personal home page ... 'Chances are they're not a major, major entity,' said Reva Basch, author of 'Researching on Line for Dummies' (Dummies Technology Press, 1998), of tilde-site owners."

    More pain, pain, pain

    More of Travel Weekly's staffers are speaking up about the pains of working with computers following the publication of the March 8 piece on San Francisco bureau chief Laura Del Rosso's bout with repetitive strain injury (RSI).

    Senior editor Henry Magenheim said he was diagnosed with neck arthritis three years ago, "a direct result of having the computer screen at a 45-degree angle for years as well as cradling the phone during interviews between my neck and my head."

    "On bad days, I have a neck traction device where I lie down and stick my head in a noose for 20 minutes. When it's really bad, I heat up a gel in the microwave and wrap a towel around it and place it around my neck.

    "P.S.: In the old days, when we pounded typewriters, I was fine."

    Meanwhile, this Agent Life editor had an exasperating encounter with workers' compensation insurance in trying to diagnose RSI. First, workers' comp sent me to a doctor who decided, after a five-minute exam and an X-ray, that my injury wasn't work-related. Then the workers' comp insurance company refused to release the X-ray report to my regular doctor.

    Why? From the way the insurance company grilled me, it seemed that someone there feared that my doctor, who is a medical reporter on a local news show, planned to use my X-ray report in an expose on workers' comp!

    My P.S.: I'd like to hear from agents who have been having trouble with RSI. If you've got a pain in your hand or shoulder, e-mail me at [email protected] or send a fax to (201) 319-1947.

    By Phyllis Fine

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