Excel Razes Walls Between Agents, Clients

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Ted Friedli, president of Excel Travel in Middletown, N.J., looks at the open layout of his agency's main office space as a means to providing "specialty service" to clients.

Agents' desks are within easy reach of each other, with no cubicles or partitions to divide up the roughly 2,000 square feet of space. Friedli said, "We realized that each agent has a speciality. It never hurts when an agent is talking to a client for another agent to jump in who is truly an expert. Sometimes we have two or three agents talking to a client. It results in much better service. Cubicles don't allow for that interaction."

conference table Excel Travel, with a 60/40 mix of leisure and corporate travel, employs 15 people, including six full-time agents, Friedli and his wife, Joanna, the agency's vice president. He is from Switzerland, so Europe is one of his specialties. Three of his agents have, among them, sailed on more than 30 cruises, providing them with expertise in that area.

Front desk Excel Travel's decor also features an interior "sun deck" next to glass doors looking out over a parking lot and beyond to a lovely park. The deck is furnished with a table and chairs purchased from Sears, Friedli said. Why a sun deck? "To be different and to give people something to talk about," Friedli said. "When people walk in, we don't want them to just go to the first agent. They are greeted by [one] person, who sits close to the door. [That] agent finds out where they are going and hooks them up with the right agent. If the agent they need to talk to is busy, we put them up on the deck. I'd much rather have a customer wait for a couple of minutes for the right person."

While waiting, the clients might be filling out a questionnaire about their travel plans, where they have traveled in the past and how they learned about the agency. They will be offered refreshments: coffee, cookies and, occasionally, a pina colada, Friedli said.

"Our way of conducting business is to establish a relationship with customers that they couldn't get anywhere else. If we can't beat them on price, we'll beat them on service."

* * *

Look around the office at Excel Travel in Middletown, N.J., and here is what you will see:

  • Lots of plants -- five dozen or so and all in good condition. Ted Friedli, the agency's president, said, "It takes me an hour-and-a-half each week to water the plants. It's therapy."
  • Blue carpeting. "The colors of the water," Friedli said.
  • Paper palm trees, purchased at a party store for about $5 apiece, to decorate support pillars and add to the leisure-travel ambience.
  • Saloon-style swinging doors leading to the kitchen, backroom and storage areas, "just to give the office a different look," Friedli said.
  • One behind-the-scenes service is passport pictures. Clients can have photos taken for free. "Potential" clients pay $6 for two photos, but that amount is credited toward a future trip purchase, Friedli said. "When it comes to price, it's all the same, so we have to figure out what makes us different."
  • Brochures stored out of easy reach of walk-in clients. "People cannot just help themselves. We want them to sit and talk to us," Friedli said. Brochures from preferred suppliers are displayed in racks. Others are stowed in file cabinets. One person in the office is responsible for keeping track of them and ordering new ones. This person also is charged with maintaining order among brochures. When agents remove brochures, for example, they return them to a special bin for refiling. It's a matter of using time wisely and keeping everything organized, Friedli said. "I don't want my agents to waste their time filing brochures. Plus I've worked at too many agencies where you cannot find information."
  • An area where clients can peruse videos or perhaps select one to take home for review. This doesn't happen all that often, Friedli said. "In most cases, we are really the salespeople. People trust us more than they would a videotape. Most people realize that a videotape from a hotel or a resort is advertising."
  • * * *

    Workbooks for Winning

    Realistic Learning Systems added two titles to its "Workbooks for Winning" series. The series presents "today's most pertinent profit-making issues in an easy-to-follow format," RLS said. One new workbook, "Advanced Cruise Group Sales," instructs on negotiating with cruise lines. The other new title is "Selling Strategies for Success." Workbooks are $29.95 each or $25 each for two or more workbooks in a single order. Shipping and handling is $7.50 for up to two workbooks, $1.50 per each additional. Contact Realistic Learning Systems at 12799 Northwest 18th Manor, Pembroke Pines, Fla. 33028. Or call (954) 441-7253; e-mail [email protected]

    * * *

    Surf and Ye Shall Find

    The following tips on using the Web to find information that your agency can use were offered during a seminar at the Travel Weekly '98 Conference in Nashville, Tenn., by Jeff Arcel, vice president of New Business Development for Orbit Network in Whitefish, Mont., and Wallace Wilcox, president of Wilcox World Travel and Tours in Asheville, Ill.:

  • Before you start a search, analyze what information you need and think of key words that describe it.
  • Learn techniques for "deep searching" in order to bring up lists of relevant sites only. The Web search engines have tutorials on this subject. They are worth spending time on.
  • Some quick deep-search techniques are: Type quote marks around the search phrase, as in "charter yachts." Use the word "and" to find documents that contain all of the words you specified. Use the word "or" to find documents with at least one of the words you specify. Use the word "not" to exclude specific words or phrases.
  • Once you find a useful Web site, bookmark it so you can get to it quickly next time. For the same reason, you should develop a way to organize your bookmarks once you've accumulated a list of them.
  • Don't automatically believe everything you read on the Web. It is a good idea to see who created the page so that you know the source. And if you pass information you have retrieved from the Web to a client, attribute the source.
  • If you offer Internet access to your employees, ask your attorney to help you draft a written policy that sets out the limits on where they can go and what they can do on the Web during and after office hours. The basic guideline should be that if an employee thinks a site might be inappropriate, he or she should not visit it.
  • * * *

    Becoming M.O.R.E. Sensitive

    As a self-described serious scuba diver, Arthur Stark, chief operating officer of Homewood (Ill.) Travel, wants to overcome the sport's "educational shortcomings." Just one careless bump by an unknowing diver, for example, can break a piece off a coral head and kill years' worth of growth on that specimen, Stark said.

    To foster "diver responsibility," he teamed with a marine biologist, an event planner, a scuba shop owner and dive masters to form M.O.R.E., based on "Meeting Ocean Animals and Respecting Environments." M.O.R.E. combines dive tours with ecotourism and conservation education.

    Stark said, "As vast as the ocean may seem, we are in danger of destroying the life pattern there by our insensitivity and lack of knowledge. By combining the fun of learning in this novel way with the enjoyment of diving, we are able to change the mind-set of those who take our course."

    The above was adapted from Travel Weekly's "Agent Life" section.

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