Doggone it

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www.traveldog.comFor a cat person, Judy Stiles, president of Stiles Travel, Sacramento, Calif., has had a lot to do with dogs lately.

That is because her agency is the retailer of choice for traveldog, a Web site of sources for consumers interested in traveling with those particular four-legged creatures. The site, www.traveldog.com, has a direct link to the Stiles Travel home page and is run by two dog groomers also located in Sacramento.

When they called Stiles in the fall of 1997 to ask if she wanted to advertise on traveldog, Stiles had another idea: She would treat the traveldog folk as independent contractors and pay them 50% of every commission she got from being listed on their site. The arrangement worked out well, attracting roughly 10 e-mails a day from prospects, Stiles said.

After the first five months she decided she couldn't book clients and their dogs without charging a fee, because most of the requests are very specific and require detailed research. Currently, she has a transaction fee of $25, with an additional $25 for travel during a holiday period.

So one of the most positive perks of the agency's affiliation with traveldog is "helping my agents learn how to [tell consumers that we] charge a fee," said Stiles.

The business is limited by airlines' restrictions on the number of animals allowed in the main cabin (usually, a maximum of 2), which means that a convention of dog lovers, for example, is out. So the traveldog arrangement won't make Stiles rich, she said, but "it's fun, and we get some exposure. We can't really look on it as extra revenue, but we do get two or three good bookings a week."

And because she's getting referrals from the Internet, her agency is getting international exposure and has fielded requests from as far away as South Africa. Also, in having to research the dog-friendly accommodation options in areas around the country, "I've become an expert on search engines and on finding exactly what I need on the Internet," said Stiles.

Quircky pooch people

DogPeople are strange and dog owners can be stranger, said Judy Stiles, president of Stiles in Travel, Sacramento, Calif. Stiles is something of an expert on the quirks of clients traveling with those four-legged creatures, since she began booking them through her agency's link to the Web site, www.traveldog.com.

She is actually a cat person, not a dog person, who is about "ready to get a couple of cats" again to fill the void left by a feline who died. So she is able to cast a more objective eye on her canine-owning customers.

For example, there was the client who said her dog was dying and she wanted to give him a good time by taking one last trip with him. "Now, who are you really doing this for?" asked Stiles, noting that a dying dog would probably be happiest at home.

On a lighter note, she said, "the names of the animals are sometimes hysterical. Currently I'm working on a trip for Cleopatra, a black lab. There was a mastiff named Bunny and another one named Ethyl -- and mastiffs are really huge dogs."

When you're booking clients and their pets, "Hoteliers are really concerned with size of the dog," she said. "They get nervous when you tell them this 250-pound horse is coming."

Kinds of canine travel

When Judy Stiles books clients who are traveling with their dogs -- all referred through her agency's link to the Web site www.traveldog.com -- she generally handles three types of requests.

The first are for clients traveling cross country, often relocating and looking for dog friendly-places en route. "That can be difficult," said Stiles, president of Stiles Travel, Sacramento, Calif. "You really get to know your geography doing it."

Next come the vacationers -- most often from the East Coast, she has found -- who may be looking for something very specific, such as "a private lake in Texas." In researching such places, she has developed a huge database of resources, though, she said, the only destinations for which she has gotten to use information more than once were Lake Tahoe; Bar Harbor, Maine, and North Carolina's Outer Banks.

Finally, there are clients interested in flying somewhere with their animal -- which "can be medium-easy, depending on where they're going," she said. One of her resources in that case is a company called Air Animal, in Tampa, Fla., which does charter air flights for people willing to pay a premium for traveling with their pets.

In general, she noted, the research required in handling traveldog.com requests is "very time consuming." Sometimes, she noted, clients will say they just want a list of resources. Usually, then, "we'll give them a list of what's available that takes dogs. We feel justified in still charging a fee, because we've done some work to check what's actually available."

Internet workshops

Joanie OggAgents interested in learning more about marketing on the Internet might check out the seminars being given by the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (Nacta), the Valley Center, Calif., group for outside agents and host agencies headed by president Joanie Ogg.

Tom Ogg, Nacta's industry advisor and Joanie's husband, will present the four-hour workshops on Internet Essentials for Travel Agents. He will discuss such topics as Internet basics, how to build a compelling Web site, understanding how search engines work and how to open a storefront on the Web for less than $100 per year. The workshops cost $79 for Nacta members and $99 for nonmembers and will start at 1 p.m. in the following locations: Anaheim, Calif., April 16th; Phoenix, May 14; Tulsa, Okla., May 28; Houston, June 18; Baltimore, July 16, and Honolulu, Aug. 13.

Additional dates are continually being added in other markets and will be listed on the Nacta Web Site, www.nacta.com. For more information, contact Nacta Headquarters at (760) 751-1197, e-mail [email protected], or register on line at ACTA's Web site. Space is limited and reservations are necessary.

Standing out from the pack

Richard TurenI believe that some of the old rules about direct mail may need to be modified. The fact is that with today's technologically advanced databases, our clients are getting solicited by some pretty high-powered travel marketers. Sometimes, clients receive so many travel solicitations that they are unsure which ones come directly from their agent.

Years ago, many companies figured out that glossy paper is no more expensive than standard stationary -- so everything went glossy and full color, with tons of pretty-model photos. And most of this stuff looks the same.

To stand out, consider focusing on the personality and strengths of your firm in a mailing that you write yourself. For example, try putting a simple dramatic sentence on the cover, leaving everything else blank. The more unique a front-page look you have, the more you'll be telling clients that this mailing is different from all the rest, and that it is from their travel agent. They'll probably read it.

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]

Dumb client stories

True stories? Agency legends? Whatever, we found the following stories of client's faux pas (e-mailed to us from various sources) amusing:

"I really did have someone ask for an aisle seat so that their hair wouldn't get messed up by being near the window."

"A client called in inquiring about a package to Hawaii. After going over all the cost info, she asked, 'would it be cheaper to fly to California and then take the train to Hawaii?' "

"A secretary called in looking for a hotel in Los Angeles. She gave me various names from a list, none of which I could find. I finally had her fax me the list. To my surprise, it was a list of hotels in New Orleans. She thought the LA (for Louisiana) stood for Los Angeles, and that New Orleans was a suburb of L.A. When I called her back, she wasn't even embarrassed." *

A man called and asked if he could rent a car in Dallas. When I pulled up the reservation, I noticed he had a one-hour layover in Dallas. When I asked him why he wanted to rent a car, he said, 'I heard Dallas was a big airport, and I need a car to drive between the gates to save time.' "

"I just got off the phone with a man who asked, 'How do I know which plane to get on?' I asked him what exactly he meant, to which he replied, 'I was told my flight number is 823, but none of these darned planes have numbers on them.'"

Corrections

Contrary to an Agent Life item in the March 4 issue, New York-based job recruitment company Yours in Travel Personnel is a totally separate firm from the new Internet travel news magazine, www.YourTravelNews.com. However, both share a name at the top: P. Jason King, who is president of the personnel company and publisher of the magazine.

A recent item in Agent Life made it seem as if Kemwel Holiday Autos' agent loyalty and recognition program, KHA Miles, was about to expire. In fact the program runs through Dec. 31.

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