Daring to be different

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Judith Heydt, co-owner of Judy and Maria's Travel in Coatesville, Pa., has a son of whom she is immensely proud. He has an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and he offers advice regarding his mother's business that she does not always heed.

He got a surprise, then, when her agency was selected late last year as a winner of a 2006 Forbes Enterprise Award, which honors small businesses for their vision and achievements.

The differences in the views of mother and son neatly affirm the obvious: There are many ways to run a successful business.

Heydt and co-owner Maria Thomas have found theirs: They sell only one supplier and only two destinations.

The supplier is Apple Vacations. The destinations are the Dominican Republic and Mexico (with Jamaica to be added next year). The five-person agency is grossing close to $3.5 million a year, Thomas said.

The partners launched their business in 1990 as a typical, full-service operation. After 9/11, when "our world crashed," Thomas said, "we realized we had to focus. We had to look at where people would feel secure. We had to target repeaters and [service] quality, and we had to offer the short trips [to those who couldn't take longer ones]."

They merged that thinking with something Heydt was learning at the agency's Web site, at www.jmtravel.com. She said the most-demanded destinations were the Dominican Republic and Mexico, which meant they could make a business even with a highly focused agenda.

Consumer preferences dovetailed nicely with Apple Vacations' product line, so in January 2002, the partners implemented their new strategy.

Why only one supplier? Or, more to the point, why put all the agency's eggs in one basket? "Because you have to focus and give [the supplier] a lot of business to get respect," Heydt said.

Apple Vacations didn't think the strategy would work, Heydt said.

"We've earned big respect, and we are pretty much complaint-free," she said.

And why Apple Vacations?

Heydt said that the tour operator is financially secure and that "its management and sales teams work with us. Apple makes it easy to do our jobs."

The agents also sell only a limited number of resort brands; they will expand offerings to include Jamaica in 2008 because a number of their preferred resorts will open properties there.

What if clients want something else?

"We tell them what we sell. We don't refer them to other agents. They're smart professionals; they'll find what they want," Heydt said.

Heydt and Thomas inspect the properties every three months (which means they cannot review anything incognito anymore, Heydt noted). The partners take their own photos and write all their own reviews for the agency's Web site.

The Web content "is all us," Heydt said, with no advertising, contrary to her son's recommendation.

The partners were in Cancun in October 2005 when Hurricane Wilma struck. That was a coincidence that "saved our business," Heydt said.

"We were able to report firsthand to our clients that Riviera Maya was, in fact, OK and would be up and running within months," she said.

Today, about 80% of bookings are by repeat customers, Heydt said. The agency finds most new clients through its Web site. As the Web is global, the agency's clients hail from all over the world, with "a lot from the U.K. and Spain," Heydt said.

She said that Dominicans book hotel stays in the Dominican Republic through the agency, too, because the rates are lower.

The Web has been Heydt's domain, and "Maria is the champion salesperson," Heydt said.

"I've studied and worked seven days a week on the Web for years," said Heydt, adding that the agency is "in all the search engines. It's a chess game. I change things every month, trying to stay in the top five [responses to a search]."

By the time clients contact Judy and Maria's Travel, "they know what they want because our Web site is so thorough."

However, very few make their own bookings, perhaps 1%. Heydt said she calls the self-bookers as soon as they book.

The agency is a brick-and-mortar operation with a heavy dose of virtual interaction followed by high-touch handling.  Making that point, Heydt noted the Web site's profiles of the agency's owners as well as their pets and other personal tidbits.

"We show we're real people," Heydt said.

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.

Mark My Words

Generation me

By Mark Mancini

Has this ever happened to you? Every now and then, you stumble across a bit of information, an insight you vaguely sense will have a profound effect on the travel marketplace. That's how I felt when I read a recent article about how people under age 35 think, behave and buy, based on a study conducted by psychologist Jean Twenge.

Her key observation: For several decades, parents, teachers and others have worked hard to reinforce the conviction in today's young people that they are unique, interesting and important.

It's hard to criticize that.

However, Twenge believes that in many young adults this self-esteem has become stretched into a distorted, overblown and dangerous sense of self.

Twenge finds this to be so alarming that she calls it "a pathological narcissistic personality disorder."

My first reaction: The people I know under 35 don't fit this mold at all. Most seem engaged, concerned and eager to apply their talents to benefit others.

Actually, Twenge likewise finds much to admire in what she calls the Millennial Generation. In fact, she's part of the Millennial Generation.

Twenge takes pains, though, to point out that her peers, though largely unselfish, are self-centered. The difference is subtle but telling.

And she worries that the magnified overconfidence that results from this self-absorption will soon collide with the real world, sparking all manner of sad results.

Of course, Twenge is generalizing. Everyone under 35 surely doesn't fit neatly into her theories. She admits it.

Still, her observations feel right, or at least right enough, to have implications for all aspects of society, including travel.

Perhaps upbringing isn't the villain. Maybe it's technology.

Blogs, Webcams, MySpace and YouTube all serve to transform ordinary people into quasi-celebrities.

I always thought Andy Warhol was just playing with our heads when he famously declared that "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Turns out he was right.

TV reality shows promise that regular people can become familiar to millions, instantly. MP3 players permit us to be our own disc jockeys, playing only what we love, within a sound bubble that blocks out all others.

And be honest: Have you ever tried to Google your own name, just to see if search engines have "discovered" you?

(Yahoo records 30,402 hits for Jean Twenge. While I was finding that out, an ad popped up: "Check out Paris Hilton on Yahoo." What better-timed proof could there be?)

But let's get practical. How will this trend affect our industry? Let's start with future travel professionals. To be a great salesperson, you must be able to shift your ego to someone else's, to put yourself fully in your customer's mind.

Twenge warns that Millennials are inclined instead to want to change other people's minds to match their own. This is precisely the wrong thing for a salesperson in our business to do.

This trend, however, isn't limited to 20-somethings. It's affecting us all. We're all bathed, to some extent, in the very same technologies and experiences that young people are, and that can potentially inflate our sense of self while blocking those of others.

Fortunately, there are a surprising number of simple exercises and techniques that can help you practice shifting your attention from yourself to your client, and keep it there. They can be divided into two main activities: listening and observing.

Someone once said that you shouldn't talk someone into buying, you should listen them into buying.

The best way to do that: Ask not just fact-finding questions but also open-ended ones, such as, "What do you see yourself doing in your vacation?" Open-ended questions provide significant and often interesting clues to client needs.

They're more likely to keep your attention on what your client is saying.

Trying to pick up on visual clues is a bit trickier. (It assumes, of course, that the client is there with you.)

Is the client "nodding yes" as you describe your ideas? Is their body posture open and relaxed? Are they leaning forward toward you?

All these are positive visual signals. And if you become skilled at spotting them, you'll be well on your way to shifting your attention toward your client.

What else can you do to stay other-focused? Try to banish "I" from your sales process and replace it with "you."

For every statement you make, ask at least three questions.

Take notes. It makes you pay extra-close attention to others. Try not to mentally argue with your customer.

And make random acts of kindness a habit -- it helps you rehearse the empathy needed in service and sales.

Above all, no matter if you're 20 or 60, be wary of that easy drift into self-centered thinking.

Otherwise, the only travel you'll successfully arrange, even if it's for your client, is travel for yourself.

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

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