Embracing the Web

etty Wilson, an agent at College Park, Ga.-based Holiday Travel, isn't afraid the Internet is threatening her livelihood. Instead, she's using the Web to enhance her career, as well as her lifestyle.

Wilson used to live less than two miles from the agency, but after relocating to Decatur last September, her commute grew to a 40-mile roundtrip drive, in heavy traffic.

Wilson made that commute for several weeks but almost immediately knew she wanted to work from her home.

Fortunately, Wilson's manager understood.

"I just said, 'I have things to do that can be done at home. Is that OK?' "

Betty Wilson, at the office of College Park, Ga.-based Holiday Travel, now mostly telecommutes. Now Wilson, a part-time agent, works from home two days a week and drives to the office only when necessary.

"Internet technology and telecommuting have changed my role as an agent in a big way," Wilson said. "It has put me in the position of a true saleswoman as opposed to an order taker," she said.

"Since I've been working at home, my manager has been giving me all of the business that requires quick research, follow-through, qualifying the client, selling up and closing the sale."

Back at the office, Wilson said, "If someone called about an air fare, [the agents] will give them that information right then and there."

If somebody called and wanted information on a vacation in Europe four months from that time, "then I get those calls," Wilson said.

A typical request from her manager might be to find a villa near Montreux, Switzerland, for a family of five, Wilson said.

After receiving leads from the office, Wilson said she turns to Eurovacations.com or Rail Europe's agent site, her two favorites Web sites, to do research.

Eurovacations.com is a favorite Web site of telecommuter Betty Wilson to do research and book business. "Within minutes, I can tell clients about skiing conditions in Zermatt," Wilson said.

"If clients are renting a car, I can print out a map with directions from the airport to their hotel."

The major concern that Wilson's manager had about her telecommuting was how it might affect record keeping and reporting.

To keep that from becoming a problem, Wilson said, "I usually send my bookings via e-mail to the office as soon as I make them."

Although she receives e-mails regarding specials from several consolidators, Wilson said the majority of offers are faxed to the office rather than e-mailed.

"I go into the office whenever I'm needed there," she said. "If I have a client who can only meet on a Tuesday, then I go in. I really have a flexible schedule."

Sometimes the level of business being done dictates whether or not telecommuting will suffice.

"Whenever people are spending a lot of money, they want to [see] you. If somebody's just buying a Swisspass, they don't care what I look like or what I'm wearing."

Wilson said her coworkers are getting more and more comfortable with using the Internet and with computer technology in general.

"So, we're all benefiting."

-- Paul Felt

Fams: Picking and choosing

hether she is telecommuting or educating herself by taking a fam trip, flexibility and learning are what matter most to agent Betty Wilson of Holiday Travel in College Park, Ga.

"When I started in the travel business 14 years ago, I went on every fam there was," Wilson said, "and just got burnt out.

"By year two, I was less and less interested. I was exhausted," she said.

Wilson said this is typical of agents. "When new people come into the business, they don't know anything, but love to travel."

She said new agents tend to have "enthusiastic naivete [for hopping] on and off buses. After a while, all the inspections start to blend into one."

Wilson, far right, and co-workers on a fam trip to Bermuda.She added that nowadays, although fams remain very important to her, she only takes about four a year.

"The fams I go on are 'flex fams,' where the tour operator will offer you, say, three nights' accommodations and air fare during a certain period, and you do whatever you want to do," she said.

Marie Carew, manager of Holiday Travel, said she "supports, encourages and sometimes demands continuing education for our staff."

"Becoming destination specialists, getting involved with different travel organizations and taking fam trips are the best ways to increase agency sales," Carew said.

"Agents tend to sell what they know," she added.

"When we know a product, we can trust it and confidently sell it to our clients."

Although Holiday Travel's agents don't usually travel together, a consolidator's introduction of a Bermuda service with an $88 roundtrip special drew an exception. Carew said she always travels with new staff.

"I believe a fam is absolutely necessary [to sell a destination]," Wilson said. "An agent has to be there, feel, taste and touch in order to get a sense for what he or she is doing. You must have an idea of what it's like."

On the other hand, Wilson said, it's not necessary to go back and do the same fam every time a new hotel opens in Las Vegas, for example.

Deduction standards

Can I deduct mileage when I have to transport documents from my house to a client's home?

A: That's a legitimate mileage deduction. The usual mistake is to deduct mileage to and from work. You cannot do that because it is considered normal commuting. However, you can deduct for travel from the home or agency to a business function or to a client. Be sure to keep accurate records.

Q:Besides mileage, what other deductions can I take on my agency's van?

Dan McManus.A: Other deductions you can take for use of a business vehicle are depreciation or lease payments, gas and oil, tires, repairs, tune-ups, insurance and registration fees.

If you use the vehicle for both business and personal use, record keeping is important.

You will have to be able to document every mile driven and every dime spent.

You must calculate the amount of miles accrued on personal trips and subtract that from your business usage.

You also can keep track of your business mileage and take a deduction based on a standard mileage rate. Check with your CPA to determine which method is best for you.

Q:Are credit card loans a good deal?

A: Not usually. The fine print is often where the credit card issuers make their money.

Before you sign a preapproved credit card loan check, do some checking on your own.

First, look closely at that small type, especially the part about "any transaction" fee (some charge as much as 2% for each check written).

Next, examine the interest rate. Even if it seems low, there are stipulations, such as, if you "fail to pay any two consecutive monthly payments by their payment due dates," that low rate will soar up, up, up. Sometimes the rates leap as high as 22.99%.

In contrast, a normal business loan from a bank would involve a 9% or 10% interest rate.

Former agency owner Dan McManus is president of the McManus Group, publishers of business management advice. Contact him at [email protected].

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