Diversifying the family business

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life051808Fernando Gonzalez was in high school when he made his first booking for First in Service Travel in New York.

That was in 1991, and it marked an early start in the family business: Gonzalez's mother had operated an agency that served clients hailing from her native Peru and later opened a travel school on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. Gonzalez's sister, Erika Reategui, First in Service's president, was already a travel agent.

Their mother suggested the pair start an agency and offered space at her travel school. Gonzalez recalls arranging for two telephone lines and walking to a Sabre office in the Chrysler Building to sign a 30-page document to get res terminals.

However, it took about a year to get ARC approval. So in the interim, Gonzalez said, for every air booking, he or his sister went to their host agency's office in the World Trade Center to pick up the document, then returned to the office to type up the invoice and went to an airline ticket office to pick up a boarding pass. Finally, they would personally deliver the package to the customer.

The agency was called Erika's World Wide Tours, but its strength proved to be corporate with a specialty in Latin markets. The first year was "a lot of fun and very different," Gonzalez said.

By the next year, the partners had made the switch to the company's current name. Gonzalez combined the life of student and travel agent for another four years while he went to business school.

Today, First in Service is a $35 million business with 42 employees, operating from a single location across the street from that first two-person office. Its business is 65% corporate and 35% leisure, and clients are scattered around the globe.

As of three years ago, the agency is part of the Tzell Travel Group's affiliate program, which means Tzell owns First in Service Travel.

However, the branch, with corporate clients averaging $800,000 in annual spend, operates autonomously, Gonzalez said.

On the leisure side, it relies on its Signature membership to assist with marketing.

Over the years, First in Service has diversified, especially after the 9/11 attacks. Before that, Gonzalez said, the agency had developed a niche in the fashion industry while retaining its business ties in the Latin American community.

In the years after 9/11, it launched First in Service Entertainment, which handles touring arrangements for entertainers and their bands, and First in Service Tours, which handles leisure. It bought New York's Kennedy Travel, a specialist in gay travel.

In the current downturn, the agency has planned customer events and a loyalty program that, through Nov. 30, sets aside a share of service fees to apply to trips or charitable gifts.

Gonzalez said the agency has maintained strong numbers in today's tough time despite the fact that "hard-core corporate travel" is down 50%. Fashion and gay travel have been up, he said.

Separate from the agency, Gonzalez and his sister launched and own First in Service Productions, which produces ads and provides various printing services for the fashion industry.

Diversification is where J.C. Rivero comes in. He is managing director of First in Service Tours. Born in Buenos Aires, in the 1990s he owned then sold Asensio Tours & Travel, a South America specialist.

Logically, today his specialty is South America, with emphasis on Argentina and Chile.

Rivero's business is entirely FIT, and most customers originate from his personal database carried over from his Asensio days, or clients come by referral.

Rivero sends prospects who want budget trips or other destinations to others at the agency.

He does no marketing but sends clients two letters a year to stay in touch. Rivero puts product and price information on the Internet so rates can be updated regularly. The website "is my brochure, in effect," he said.

In a way, Rivero finds selling easy because he is so focused on a specific area where he has traveled frequently and knows the product well.

"I've seen 75% of the hotels I sell; I've slept in 25% of them," whereas "in Paris, I am a tourist," he said.

Perfect Itinerary: Buenos Aires and beyond

The following Argentina trip is typical of the FIT itineraries J.C. Rivero prepares for his clients at First in Service Tours in New York.

itin051809Day 1: Pick up at Ezeiza Airport, Buenos Aires, for the transfer to the hotel. In the late afternoon, visit neighborhoods such as La Boca, Palermo, Puerto Madero, Recoleta and San Telmo.

Day 2: Walk around Recoleta and Puerto Madero. In the evening, about 9 p.m., you will be picked up for our first tango show, at Viejo Almacen. Return to the hotel.

Day 3: Day at leisure in Buenos Aires. Take a stroll in the morning to Palermo Soho with its trendy boutiques, restaurants and cafes. After a few glasses of wine, continue to Palermo Hollywood to visit the barrio houses and the famous flea markets. In the evening, enjoy a tango show at Tango Rojo.

Day 4: Travel to the outskirts of the pampas to visit one of the grand estancias and enjoy a barbecue lunch.

Day 5: Morning tour to the San Telmo flea market. Start with the Antique Market at Dorrego Square.

Day 6: Private transfer to the airport for the flight to San Carlos de Bariloche. Arrival at Bariloche Airport and transfer to the hotel. Afternoon departure for the Circuito Chico (Short Circuit) drive following the southern shore of Nahuel Huapi Lake to Llao Llao Peninsula, continue through forests of coihue trees to reach the panoramic point for breathtaking views of Nahuel Huapi Lake and Victoria Island. Then drive along Trebol Lake and finally hop onto a chairlift to enjoy the view from Mount Campanario. Return to the hotel.

Day 7: Full-day excursion to San Martin de los Andes along the Seven Lakes Road. Depart from Bariloche in the morning, taking Highway 237 North and then turning left to follow the north shore of the Nahuel Huapi Lake to Angostura. After a short stop, the tour continues northward on gravel Route 234, passing Espejo, Correntoso, Bailey Willis, Villarino, Falkner, Machonico and Escondido lakes, arriving finally at San Martin de los Andes, a village on the banks of Lacar Lake known locally as "The Town of the Roses."

Day 8: Day at leisure: rent a car, play golf or just relax.

Day 9: Transfer to the airport for your flight home.

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