Cushing turned love of Italy into a career

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It began with art -- Margot Cushings love for Italy, that is. It all started with an absolutely fabulous college art history professor who got me engaged in Italian art, said Cushing, an independent contractor with Linden Travel Bureau in New York.

Her growing interest in art led Cushing to spend a year of independent study in Florence at age 20. I fell in love with Italy, she said.

Cushing, who has worked as a travel agent for 30-plus years, started from the bottom up. I found an agency that was willing to train me, she said.

As Cushing evolved as an agent, she realized that she would be best suited to work as an independent contractor, where she could build a clientele of her own.

When the airline commission structure began changing in the 1990s I knew I had to create a niche for Italy, said Cushing, adding that she was off to a running start because she had already gained a reputation as a retailer who knew the destination well.

Today, 65% of Cushings business is derived from selling Italy, with the remainder coming from Spain, France, Britain, the Caribbean, Canada, the U.S. and cruises.

To generate business, Cushing created a Web site at www.vantaggio.com, which promotes her product offerings. She also has gleaned a tremendous amount of business from being featured in Travel + Leisures A-List Agents issue.

Its been incredible, said Cushing, adding that shes booked two trips this month with new clients and two other itineraries in April and May. And I have more coming up -- three in July and five more at the end of August and September, she said.

Putting in the work

Cushing has traveled to Italy at least 25 times and typically visits the country three times a year at the invitation of regional tourist boards to attend conferences and familiarization trips. In some cases, the conferences enable agents to sit down with suppliers and acquaint themselves with product offerings.

These conferences have helped her forge relationships with a host of hoteliers, car rental firms, ground operators and airlines. You have to spend a lot of time with them to get to know them because it takes a while to develop a rapport.

Cushing, who is a member of Virtuoso, also takes advantage of the services of the consortiums on-site partners.

Most of my travel arrangements are made with people in Italy, Cushing said.

These trips are essential because they provide Cushing with the opportunity to check out new hotels and ensure that perennial favorites are still up to snuff.

Cushing, who speaks Italian fluently, said she worked hard to learn the language in a way that enables her not to just order off a menu but to hold conversations. That way they remember me better, she said.

Expanding her reach

Like any savvy travel agent, Cushing is always looking to uncover new destinations to expand her business. In her view, such emerging destinations as Tunisia and Libya are excellent options for travelers who have an affinity for Italy.

Those destinations, she said, feature myriad Roman ruins that are even more intact than what travelers will find in Italy.

Cushing believes that Tunisia, Libya and Italy, in combination, would be a dream vacation for seasoned travelers. She is pitching such a trip to  someone she met at a party.

Cushing believes she is ideally suited for the life of an independent contractor, although she conceded working independently is not for the faint of heart.

Some people dont think they can make enough money, and they would rather have a salary, she said.

But Cushing loves the challenge.

You can develop your business as you wish, she said, and it gives you the autonomy to sell the things you want to sell and build the kind of clientele you want. You have to want to prove something to yourself.

To contact Agent Life reporter Claudette Covey, send e-mail[email protected].

Perfect Itinerary

Experiencing Alaskas natural wonders

Margret Propper is a travel counselor and Alaska specialist at Brownell Travel in Birmingham, Ala. The following five-day southeast Alaska itinerary begins in Anchorage and takes in the citys myriad sites as well as visiting Juneau, Gustavius and Glacier Bay.

Day 1

Clients check into the Captain Cook Hotel and spend the day sightseeing in Anchorage, visiting the Native Heritage Center and the floatplane base in downtown Anchorage, where more than 800 floatplane landings and takeoffs are accommodated on a peak summer day. That evening, travelers dine at Simon and Seaforts, which Propper said offers superlative seafood. Request a table with a view of Cook Inlet, she suggested.

Day 2

Clients fly to Juneau in the morning and pick up a car on arrival. They check into the central locally Goldbelt Hotel. They can drive out to Mendenhall Glacier and take one of the many hiking trails up to the face of the glacier. Later, they continue driving to the end of the road to visit the Church on the Lake. Following the church visit, travelers return to Juneau to visit the Alaska State Museum. For dinner, Propper suggests trying the Twisted Fish, with high ceilings and an entire wall of windows on the Gastineau Channel.

  Day 3

The crystal waters of Glacier Bay.Travelers board a charter flight for Admiralty Island to see the Bears of Admiralty Island at Pack Creek. Admiralty Island is known as the Fortress of the Bears by the local Tlingit natives. The island is home to more than 1,600 bears -- one of the highest concentrations of bears in the world. Later, clients fly on to Gustavius and check into the Bear Track Inn at the entrance to Glacier Bay. All meals are included. In the evening, they kayak in glacial waters around the lodge.

Day 4

Travelers embark on a whale-watching cruise to see the Whales of Point Adolphus. This is where the largest concentration of whales are found in southeast Alaska, said Propper.

Day 5

Clients take a full-day cruise on Glacier Bay to see the massive glaciers as they calve and the wildlife found in the bay.

The Perfect Itinerary is an example of an itinerary an agent crafted his or herself, not available anywhere else, but can be duplicated by other agents to sell to their clients. To send an example of an itinerary youve customized, e-mail Covey at[email protected].

Hand In Hand

Travel Guard helps save a life

Its every travel agents nightmare: A client becomes very ill on a trip and the retailer is helpless to do anything to remedy the situation. Such a nightmare was averted for Damian McCabe and her client, Alfred Maybach, because McCabe had the foresight to ensure that her clients acquired Travel Guard insurance.

Maybach and his wife, Beverly, were sailing aboard Royal Caribbeans Legend of the Seas on a Panama Canal itinerary with a U.S. Naval Academy group when Maybach became ill and began coughing up blood.

Beverly sought out McCabe, who was onboard as the group coordinator. Travel Guard was amazing, said McCabe, of McCabe Bremer Travel in McLean, Va. Thanks to coordination between the ships doctor, Travel Guard and the Coast Guard, Maybach was evacuated via helicopter to South Miami Hospital.

McCabe said Travel Guard called Beverly several times a day to keep her abreast of her husbands condition.

They called to see if she needed anything, said McCabe. They let her know where he was at any given moment and connected her with anyone she needed to call at home.

Travel Guard arranged a flight from Aruba to Miami and had a car meet Beverly at the airport, which transported her directly to the hospital, said McCabe.

The doctor who met the air ambulance in Miami said if Maybach arrived just 10 minutes later, he likely would not have survived due to internal bleeding, said a Travel Guard spokesman.

Sasha Gainullin, director of worldwide assistance at Travel Guard, said the situation with Maybach is not unlike situations the company grapples with on a daily basis. In this case, we gathered together and figured out how to get Mr. Maybach from the ship to the hospital.

For his part, Maybach believes he is one fortunate man. Dont leave home without Travel Guard insurance if youre going on a major trip. They have been exceptional.

Hand in Hand highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to Covey at[email protected].

Daltons Corner

Dont get trampled in the distribution battle

 By John Dalton

Several weeks ago, a major airline sent a notification to a GDS firm. The message was brief. It read, Effective [date] we will no longer supply your company with our schedules and fares. If your travel agency is using that GDS, what will you do when your clients look to purchase a ticket on that airline?

Will you go to the airline Web site to book? How about picking up the phone and going back to the old-fashioned way of booking? Perhaps you will be using one of the new-entrant GDSs, such as G2 SwitchWorks, ITA or Farelogix.

Now that I have your attention, I have to confess that the airline did not send its notification -- yet.

But recent news releases should alert agents that they may no longer be booking clients as they do today.

United Airlines had meetings at their headquarters with 40 key agencies and 30 corporate accounts during January regarding the new booking systems.

Continental has approached agencies with possible financial offers for making their bookings in a new system and not in their current GDS.

American, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and AirTran have signed agreements with G2 SwitchWorks and have prepaid distribution fees to use the system.

These airlines have a significant share of the bookings currently made by travel agencies through the four traditional GDSs.

US Airways also signed a multiyear agreement with them but not with the commitment of the other seven. Perhaps this is in anticipation of its pending merger with America West.  JetBlue, Alaska and Independence Air have signed letters of intent to use the new system. 

But the big push to accelerate the development and use of the new-entrant GDSs was the action taken by the 16-airline Star Alliance, which met with ITA Software and G2 in May.  The alliance wants to create a single strategy to select distribution partners.

Collectively, Star spends $2 billion a year on GDS fees, which represents about 27% of the worldwide market share.

Clout will definitely move the process along more rapidly. 

The airlines are out to drastically reduce their current GDS fees of $10 to $13 per booking, and they are almost unanimously agreeing that they will seek distribution methods other than the current GDSs to achieve their financial goals.

The last time this many airlines agreed on anything was when they decided to no longer pay commissions to travel agents. Now they are focused again, and the battle between airlines and the GDSs is on.

The GDS firms are also moving in new directions.  Cendant, owner of Galileo and Orbitz, has developed an alternative distribution system for agents.

Sabre has said competition is nothing new for us and is prepared to move ahead.  You can be sure that Worldspan and Amadeus are also repositioning. 

Back-room accounting systems and third-party software companies are communicating with the new entries.

They want to ensure that their equipment is compatible with all forms of electronic distribution and offer their customers the ability to use their equipment no matter what booking method is used.

The puzzling aspect to me is that most of the agency community is not being invited or not inviting themselves to participate in this important issue, which could have a tremendous impact on their future financial status and customer service. 

If you are not involved, do you plan to wait and let your suppliers determine your future?  Are you prepared to have them surprise you with a message telling you what your options are?

If you wait, you might get the same feeling you had when the airlines informed you that they cut commissions.

John Dalton is an industry consultant, trainer and speaker.

Five Things

Getting good at closing the deal

1. Listen to clients. The biggest sales mistake is talking too much. Yes, you need to ask questions, but agents should be focused around the concept of ABC (always be closing), said Rick Kaplan of WeCanPartners, a travel and hospitality consulting firm in Los Angeles. He suggested using a preprinted reservations form that contains qualifying questions.

2. Fact-find. Its essential for the agent to control the flow of the phone call or e-mail by gathering relevant facts to use later. Beyond the who, what, when and where lies the most critical aspect of fact-finding, the why in their purchase, said Kaplan. Understanding why someone is planning a vacation is the most critical question on the road to closing the sale. According to Kaplan, there are only five reasons someone buys a vacation: special occasion; normal vacation; escape from the rigors of work or life; romantic getaway; or destination desire. Find out early in the dialogue which of these is the buyers underlying purpose, and you are well on your way to a sale, Kaplan said.

3. Experience. Understanding a customers prior travel habits ensures you are on target with the products you suggest, said Kaplan.

4. The big recap. Assuming you have taken notes, youll be in good position to begin closing, as you validate what you have heard by using terms like, Heres what it sounds like you are looking for, said Kaplan. Using this method quickly tells you if you are on target or about to waste a great deal of time researching something you cannot sell.

5. Always be closing. From the first contact, look at this process as an inverted triangle that narrows the choices (a maximum of two) that you present, both of which will work for the buyer. This is accomplished by following these handy hints: Relate your findings to buyers hot buttons, personalize what you say based on what youve heard, clearly define differences between the products. Ask them how all that sounds and provide a viable reason to book now.

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