Exploring uncharted turf

Owners of a California travel agency have begun to diversify into uncharted territory: the vehicle rental business.

WinnebagoIn a period of several months, a 37-foot Winnebago has not only promoted the name of Sunward Adventures Travel but also generated almost $4,500 in rentals.

The Riverside, Calif.-based agency bought the tan-colored, $30,000 Winnebago last August. A custom painter added the company's sun logo, telephone number and Web site address.

Agency owner Gary Davis said the intent of purchasing the van was to use it for promotions but also to pay for its cost.

In fact, said his partner, Brian Kerr, the van "does work as a promotional item." When Kerr took the vehicle on an inaugural camping vacation along the California and Oregon coasts, he generated lots of interest from consumers on the road. Passing out business cards and brochures, Kerr sold a cruise along the way.

But almost every time the van is in use, "we've gotten calls from people [who see it and] say they want to rent it," added Kerr.

After doing research on renting motor homes in the area, it was decided to price the rental about 10% below the prevailing market, said Davis. Rental charges for the Winnebago are based on high and low seasons. Rates range from $800 to $1,400 a week or $200 to $250 a day.

"We're flexible about it, though," said Davis, adding the price is negotiable depending upon the vehicle's availability. That flexibility has helped business, he added. "Some of our renters have told us they go to the big rental places and they won't let them take a van out for just one day. The word is getting out that we're willing to work with people," he said.

Kerr said the two are waiting to see how seriously they'll get into the vehicle rental business. "But we're still travel agents," he added. "To us, it's an extra little way to earn some money. You've got to explore all your different options in today's environment."

Looking for a motor home?

Riverside, Calif.-based travel agency Sunward Adventures will pay 10% commission to agents who want to rent the company's Winnebago to clients traveling to Southern California.

inside the WinnebagoSunward is located halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs and has gotten a number of clients from the L.A. area, according to agency co-owner Brian Kerr.

The vehicle "sleeps six really comfortably, but you could probably squeeze a couple of extra kids in it," he said. Also included are seating for 11 to 12 people and all the "comforts of home": a television, a VCR, a microwave, a refrigerator and a freezer.

Kerr said Sunward has rented the Winnebago to a "surprisingly wide range" of clients, from families with small children to a group taking it to a football game tailgate party to couples looking for a romantic weekend.

The firm only has one vehicle, but Kerr and his partner, Gary Davis, are seriously considering buying another one -- and then it will be marketing to other agents more seriously, he said.

"So far, the idea has worked really well," Kerr said. "And I think we're the first agency to do something like this."

Call the company at (800) Sunward for more information or check out its Web site at www.sunward.com

Specialize to survive

Robin Fetsch

I have a client who has a full schedule of overseas speaking engagements in the coming months.

"I hope all this business helps send your kids to college," he said half seriously. Clearly, he doesn't realize how drastically these commission caps have affected us. Should I tell him what I really make on his $4,000 ticket?

Rather than consider a new career in integrated systems management, I will continue to follow the advice of ASTA and others to specialize. Especially for home-based agents, this is essential for survival.

For the past few years I have been focusing on several specialty travel products, for example, adventure travel to Latin America, and I have some suggestions for those who are considering developing their own niche:

  • Know your clients. Survey them to find out their future travel interests. Note trends in type of travel (such as hiking, history, ecotours) and destinations (such as Peru, Costa Rica, Jordan).
  • Know yourself. What interests you? It can be a lot more fun to sell tours to historical World War I battlefields (if that is what you like) than a roundtrip ticket to Dallas.
  • Research that interest. Go on the Internet and see what is already there. A travel student of mine from Argentina was interested in developing tours for tango dancers. She checked the Internet and found only one company offering tango dancing trips to Argentina. This could be a great special-interest opportunity.
  • Where do you want to be in five years? With our busy schedules, it's hard to find time to plan for the future. But remember, if you know what you want to be doing, it's easier to decide which route to take now.
  • Robin Fetsch operates Specialty Tours from her home in Falls Church, Va. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

    Net News

    This week's Net News has a Western flavor.

    Durango, Colo.
    Find out what your clients can do in and around this town through an on-line guide from the Durango Area Chamber Resort Association. The offerings include Mesa Verde National Park, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Purgatory Ski Resort and all sorts of outdoor activities. For a hard copy of the guide, call (800) GO-DURANGO or point your browser to www.durango.org

    Southwest Parks
    Little Bighorn Battlefield in Crow Agency, Mont., and Montezuma Castle National Park in CampVerde, Ariz., are just two of the sites in the Southwest Parks & Monuments Association. The association has 55 national parks in 11 states and posts contact information for each. Go to www.spma.org

    Compiled by Jennifer Dorsey. E-mail suggestions to [email protected]

    RSI handbook

    Feeling some pain while you're working at the keyboard? Like many of your fellow agents, you, too, may be suffering repetitive strain injury (RSI), which encompasses a wide range of conditions from carpal tunnel syndrome to tendinitis.

    One way to learn more: Check out the book "Repetitive Strain Injury," written by Dr. Emil Pascarelli and Deborah Quilter. The authors provide information on RSI symptoms along with the following tips on what good treatment should include:

  • Use physical therapy to stretch and strengthen the affected muscle groups.
  • Learn to control pain: Take adequate short breaks and recognize the body's warning signals to stop working.
  • Change your typing technique so you don't get caught in a cycle of reinjury.
  • And though some may think the remedy is to buy ergonomic furniture and aids, be cautious, say the authors. "Some of these accessories are valuable, but a lot of them are gimmicky, if not downright dangerous," they warn.

    On-line language lessons

    The Internet can help the international traveler who wants to brush up on foreign language skills, but for the beginning student, nothing can replace old-fashioned, face-to-face lessons given by a real person.

    That's the conclusion reached in a recent piece in the Circuits section of the New York Times.

    The writer, Michelle Slatalla, first checked out Language Connect (www.languageconnect.com), which offers a daily vocabulary lesson of four words in a variety of languages.

    Next she moved to a free on-line course at www.learnplus.com that was less than successful because technological glitches prevented her from interacting with the instructor.

    At www.berlitz.com, she found "common phrases in 15 languages, [and] travel and culture tips for 30 countries."

    Another source was www.dictionaries.travlang.com, for dictionaries in major foreign languages.

    Still, she concluded, on-line learning always gets around to one subject: "How technology works -- or doesn't. ... You get distracted from Spanish verb tenses by a more immediate lesson about computer crashes."

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