From junk shop to class act

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For 15 years Dynamic Agency in Southlake, Texas, "looked like 'Sanford and Son,' " the old TV show set in a junk shop, according to owner Steven Cosgrove. "Imagine the worst," he said. "Old posters, brochure racks, airline stickers in the window."

Dynamic TravelWhen the agency moved its location 500 yards in December 1996, Cosgrove cleaned up its act. In-store amenities such as a coffee bar, a travel video section and a kids' play area now encourage a more upscale clientele to browse and buy. Even more significantly, Dynamic is now a 5,000-square foot retail store selling not just cruises and tours, but luggage, travel books and accessories.

The makeover affected Dynamic's bottom line dramatically. The company's '98 sales will probably be 50% more than '96 figures--to the tune of $6.5 million, according to Cosgrove. He said walk-in business has increased eightfold and customers are buying higher-priced products. "In the old place people walked in for last-minute Vegas packages," said Cosgrove. "Now when I block group space on ships, I sell out the cabins with balconies."

Profit was a strong motivator for the shift to travel merchandise, said Cosgrove. "I get 50% commission on most of it. I can't think of anything else I've sold in the travel business with that markup."

He also noted clients' need for a one-stop travel shopping experience. "We were selling clients a $4,000 trip and sending them out the door with a shopping list for a converter, money belts, a map. And they were going to Radio Shack to be served by some 17-year-old kid who had never been overseas and to a bookstore whose main interest was in selling John Grisham thrillers, whose clerks didn't know the difference between Fodors and Lonely Planet."

Besides the added profit, Cosgrove has also seen an increase in client satisfaction. "I sold them a money belt, so they didn't get their money stolen; I sold them a neckrest, so they were comfortable on the plane."

Tips on selling merchandise

"Finish the sale," is what Steve Cosgrove, owner of Dynamic Travel, said is the key to his lucrative travel merchandise business. "If they trust me with a $4,000 trip, chances are they're going to trust me to sell them a $40 converter." Here, some other tips:

  • Decide to make the commitment to create a retail environment. That means being open retail hours--weekends and evenings. "But hey, you're no longer an agency--you're a retail store, and how many close at 5:30 in the afternoon?"
  • Start small if you want to. An agency with a tiny nest egg and not much space should first focus on developing a good selection of luggage and travel accessories, which don't require much space, unlike books, which do.
  • Learn the principles of retail display: "You need variety and selection," said Cosgrove. When it comes to luggage, "black will be your number-one color, your number two-color, and your number-three color," he added. "But you still want to get in that red bag. If you have a wall of nothing but black luggage, it doesn't draw people in." Eventually you'll sell the red bag, or donate it to a charity drive, or give it as part of a promotion to clients buying an expensive trip.
  • When you're stocking travel books, go beyond the standard guidebooks. Cosgrove's strategy: "I had two bookstores nearby, and I didn't have tons of money to put into books, so I complemented the big bookstores instead of competing with them. I went with all the offbeat publishers and the hard-to-find books. Now people are saying we have a better selection than Borders."
  • Find out what you can and can't return. You can return books and maps. With luggage, especially when you're starting out, some manufacturers will allow you to "swap out"--that is, exchange one size of luggage that isn't selling for another that is. "They realize you don't know what's going to move, and some of them are willing to be flexible," said Cosgrove.
  • The trade shows to shop

    In order to sell travel merchandise, first you've got to buy it. According to Steven Cosgrove, whose Southlake, Texas-based Dynamic Travel majors in such products, the best place to shop for travel accessories and books is at the following two major trade shows:

  • The Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America (LLGMA) annual show, next set for Orlando February 17-20, 1999, is a must, with virtually every luggage manufacturer represented as well as complete lines from most travel accessories companies.
  • "Basically everything an agency needs to get started [in travel merchandise] is there in one spot," noted Cosgrove. "You've got the president, vice president of sales, and design engineers from the companies there, all available for you to talk to."

    Attendance is free. Call LLGMA at its New York headquarters, 212-695-2340; you can also register on line at their Web site, www.llgma.org.

  • The annual American Booksellers Association (ABA) Book Expo America is the largest domestic book show in the U.S., held over a period of four days. "It usually takes me two full days to make one full pass through the whole show," noted Cosgrove. The show is organized by publisher; check the catalog of exhibitors to see which publishers have travel books, he suggested. Next year's Expo will be in Los Angeles Convention Center April 30-May 2; the registration fee is not set yet, but should be within this year's range of $75. Call 800-840-5614.
  • Beyond these two musts, check out regional gifts shows for such specialty products as travel games, suggested Cosgrove.

    Tips for home-based agencies

    The Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN) the Jupiter, Fla.-based group that aids home-based agents, has just released a new manual and audio cassette program called "How To Start A Home-Based Travel Business."

    The 300-page manual and three 1 1/2-hour cassettes were written by Suzanne Hogsett of Travel Easy Publishing.

    The program addresses such subjects as how to set up a home-based business quickly and inexpensively; how to name your business for best results; finding and selecting reliable suppliers; why you should specialize and how to choose your niche; how to set up accounts directly with most industry suppliers and keep 100% of the commission earned; dealing with insurance, legal and tax issues; and what to sell for maximum profit. In addition, there are tips on inexpensive ways to promote your business; selling groups; how to write a simple business plan; and how to select and work with host agencies.

    OSSN members have access to a special prepublication rate of $99.95 plus $5 postage for orders received by September 30th . Members may purchase the program at the OSSN Web site located at www.ossn.com/secure/resources/books2.html. Non-Members may E-mail OSSN at [email protected] and request order forms for the program

    Dickinson's tips

    Bob DickinsonIf agency owners want to convert employees from order-takers to retail vacation salespeople, they'd better convey that idea clearly and back it up with training and productivity-based compensation. That was the advice Carnival Cruise Lines president Bob Dickinson offered at a subscriber conference for the CRS Amadeus held in Miami last month.

    Dickinson said, "Owners and managers have to take time to be hands-on with their people. It's unreasonable for a great football player to become a great golfer without learning the game."

    But, "If you can't get people to change, change the people," he said. Good pay attracts good people, and that's where performance-based compensation plans come in. Dickinson said agency owners complain that it's hard to get good help, which is "easy to understand when you're paying $22,000 a year and then expect [agents] to walk on water."

    Favorite UK Web sites

    Making a U.K. booking? Consider these Web sites for more information on the British Isles, the favorites of Sally Lewis, director of marketing for www.1travel.com., an online discount reservation service:

    www.dur.ac.uk/~dgl3djb/ukus/ukus_noframe.html
    This site can save travelers from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. It's a U.K./U.S. dictionary of the dual meaning of many English words.

    www.britain-info.org
    This is the site for the NY-based press and public affairs office of the British Embassy. If anything is going on in the UK you can find out about it here, from tourism to sports news.

    www.smoothhound.co.uk/
    Don't let the name fool you. This is an excellent directory for small independent hotels and Bed and Breakfasts throughout the U.K.

    www.mda.org.uk/vlmp/
    Museums around the UK offer links to a vast database of museum information here. A great resource for planning daily itineraries.
    All about the U.K. rail system: timetables, rates, schedules, maps, station information, the works.
    An excellent resource, with one of Lewis's favorite features within the site at www.uktravel.com/london/londonmap.html.Here, you can click on any underground station on the map and it will tell you the local attractions closest to that tube stop.

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