the going gets tough, the tough diversify -- and specialize. At
least thats the tack that Wichita, Kan.-based Sunflower Travel took
to combat declining commissions post-1995.
We pretty much knew
we had to do things differently, said Bobbi Hansen, co-owner of the
In 2000, she and her
son, co-owner Devin Hansen, opened a tour operation that, while
sharing the agencys office space, operates as a separate
tour firm, ANZ Tours, specializes in travel to the South Pacific, a
region near and dear to Hansens heart.
To succeed -- whether
in the tour business or agency business -- specializing is a key
strategy that helps smaller companies differentiate themselves from
larger firms, said Hansen. I believe agencies must have niches.
Theyve got so much competition from the big guys. They need to look
at their markets and see what it is they do that differentiates
them from others.
specialties, said Hansen, retailers would be well advised to choose
niches for which they have passion.
You have to love it
to understand it, she said. People are always asking me what my
favorite place is and I say its New Zealand -- Gods
Taking niche travel
to the tour operator level, said Hansen, required meticulous
homework before the companys launch.
First, Hansen had to
find a ground operator that provided all of the services needed at
You need to find your
source in the destination youre going after, she said, adding that
during her 38 years in the agency business, she forged ties with a
host of industry executives that helped her in choosing supplier
Hansen noted that her
years as an agent, coupled with her intrepid lifestyle -- she has
visited some 50 countries -- have greatly helped her discern which
wholesalers would provide the right fit for the tour
Having been an agent,
I know what you need from a wholesaler, she said. You know how
important it is to provide the best service you can for the agents
booking our tours.
The Hansens chose
Auckland-based ID New Zealand as ANZs ground operator, based on a
relationship Hansen forged over the years with Bert Queenin, the
companys business development manager, when he worked for the New
Zealand Tourist Board in the U.S.
She attributes many
of her relationship-building skills to ASTAs regional conferences,
which have enabled her to forge strong ties with many
meetings, for instance, she has made connections with such airlines
as Qantas and Air New Zealand, which now serve as ANZ
really helped when we started up the business, she said.
Before launching ANZ
Tours, the Hansens applied with the State of Kansas for limited
liability corporation status and ensured -- with the help of a
lawyer and accountant -- that their financial and legal situation
was in order.
Get your finances in
place and make sure you have a solid business plan, Hansen
Hansen, who is on the
ASTA board of directors, is also director of the Societys Missouri
Valley and Upper Midwest region. Suffice it to say, she is a
staunch supporter of ASTA and credits her 25-year affiliation with
the organization for much of her success.
The camaraderie and
networking with other ASTA agents as well as the Societys myriad
educational opportunities have helped her take her business to new
heights, she said.
considered, the success of ANZ Tours has not come at the expense of
Sunflower Travel. Like the tour operation, the travel agency
concentrates on specific niches, Hansen noted.
Sunflower offers Garfield Getaways, packages that are designed and
themed around the cartoon cat. Furthermore, Sunflower has agents with specialties in Mexico,
Walt Disney World, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Italy and cruises.
Over the years,
Hansen has made it a point to maintain a high profile within the
community. She is a member of Wichitas chamber of commerce and the
local convention and visitors bureau and has served on the
Governors Tourism Council -- all of which she said has helped boost
the agencys business.
Although some might
say Hansen took a gamble when opening ANZ Tours, she stresses that
her business practices are anything but risky.
A key to success, in
both the tour operation and travel agency, is maintaining costs and
staying within a budget, she said. Were perhaps more conservative
because were from the Midwest.
business practices, coupled with her love affair with the travel
industry, have greatly contributed to the agency and tour
operations success, she said.
I guess Im just
quietly doing what I like doing and trying to be successful at it,
Hansen said. I love what I do. Theres never been a day when I didnt
want to come to work. Its just dedication and passion for the
To contact Agent
Life reporter Claudette Covey, send e-mail [email protected].
Harmina Mulder, an associate of the Travel
Society in Denver, designed an itinerary to the Netherlands that
includes Amsterdam and side trips to The Hague, Delft and Alkmaar.
Mulder, who was raised in the Netherlands, is an expert in
designing trips to the country.
In Amsterdam, clients
stay at the Hotel de LEurope in a riverview room. They spend the
day visiting local museums, including the Rijksmuseums Philips
Wing, the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art and
the Anne Frank House. The site for dinner is De Kas, located inside
a greenhouse. The restaurant grows most of its own produce, and
selections are strictly seasonal, said Mulder.
Travelers take the
train to The Hague and visit the Peace Palace, the principal
judicial body for the United Nations, and the International Court
of Justice. They also visit the Mauritshuis to see Johannes
Vermeers painting Girl With a Pearl Earring. Clients travel onward
to Delft to visit the Nieuwe Kerk (new church), where the tomb of
William I of Orange is located. They also visit the Koninklijke
Porceleyne Fles, the last remaining Delftware factory where the
pottery is manufactured by hand. Back in Amsterdam, travelers dine
at De Belhamel, a charming restaurant serving continental
Clients visit the
cheese market in Alkmaar, north of Amsterdam. Its worth a trip to
see how the famous cheese of Holland is weighed and sold, said
Mulder, adding that the market is only open on Fridays. The market
is still held in accordance with the regulations drafted in 1672.
Dinner is at Tempo Doeloe for Indonesian cuisine. This is a must
when visiting Amsterdam, Mulder said.
Travelers visit the
Antiekmarkt de Looier (antique market) and the Singel floating
flower market. Clients may want to spend the afternoon at the
Kalvertoren shopping center or investigating the stores along the
P.C. Hoofstraat. The site for dinner is Haesje Claes, which serves
classic Dutch food.
After brunch at the
American Hotel, travelers head for the Art Market at Spui, which
Mulder says is a fantastic place to purchase local art. Dinner is
at the Hotel de LEuropes Restaurant Excelsior.
fulfills clients unique wants
Sometimes clients want a vacation that is
sensational and unique, but they dont know how to articulate their
desires. Such was the case with a
newlywed couple that went to Victoria Boomgarden, vice president of
the luxury division of Best Travel in Naperville, Ill., for a
honeymoon to Alaska.
This was a second
marriage, and they wanted something fantastic, said
She added that the
couple didnt believe any of the traditional cruise options were
private enough. The couple, who had been married before, were
wealthy and well-educated.
clients are looking for the unusual, Boomgarden immediately goes to
her Alaska source: Alaska Unusual, which is an on-site partner of
Ensemble Travel. Boomgarden said that the
Langley, Wash.-based company can make difficult travel arrangements
They know all the
people who run the lodges, Boomgarden said. And you can get into
lodges even when theyre sold out.
They also know the
best guides in Alaska and can arrange customized land
And, in the case of
Boomgardens discerning clients, Alaska Unusual was able to book
them on the 12-passenger Centurion, which turned out to be an ideal
fit for the couple.
But the trip planning
didnt stop there. The couple requested that their evening meals be
separate from the other guests.
We arranged a
separate table for two in the main salon and all of their dinners
romantically and separately in the salon, said Marty Behr, Alaska
The company also
found a guide for all the land activities they
Behr credits the
companys success to its seasoned staff, many of whom were born and
raised in Alaska and know the finer nuances of the
Whatever a traveler
requests, Behr said chances are excellent that Alaska Unusual can
turn that request into reality.
A case in point: The
company once arranged a bar mitzvah in a Tlingit village. (Behr is
a friend of a Tlingit chief.)
At the end of the
day, Behr believes he and his staff act as extensions of their
In the case of
Boomgarden, Behr said, Were her eyes and ears in Alaska.
Hand in Hand
highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working
together. Send suggestions to [email protected].
Finding the right
One of the most
critical steps I considered when moving from commercial space to my
home office was deciding what kind of staffing solutions would be
Would I be able to
employ someone who knew how to operate my business but could work
from a remote location? Would I be able to find someone who was
technically proficient and could provide customer
Moving from a
traditional workplace to a nontraditional environment requires that
staff be flexible and have the ability to learn new skills quickly.
The workplace would no longer have prescribed hours or work
I was fortunate to
have an employee who worked for me a year-and-half before I moved
-- someone who was computer-oriented and familiar with my
requirements and motivations.
My assistant was
already working part time and was set up to work at home or a
remote location. Coverage was never a problem while I was away from
the office because she had experience working remotely. Even so, it
took some time for her to adjust and overcome her apprehension
about the new office setup.
We discussed and
outlined our expectations and goals. We communicated often and kept
each other informed, in person, via e-mail and by telephone. Some
managers or agency owners may be reluctant to embrace telecommuting
because they worry about losing control over staff. Our working
relationship did not change. She came to the office on specific
days and covered for me the remainder of the time from her home
Keeping in touch
electronically has its advantages. With e-mail especially, there is
less of a chance that messages will be misinterpreted. Social and
professional isolation are concerns, but agents meet with me often
and with sales representatives in the office. They attend trade
shows and interact with their clients. We have established office
protocol and checkpoints to discuss work projects.
and most office procedures can now be handled remotely. To help set
up the virtual office, I provided my assistant with equipment such
as a computer and printer from my former office. I also provided
her with office furniture that was no longer needed after the move
My assistant paid for
broadband Internet service, separate telephone lines, a fax machine
and office supplies. Some of her expenses may be tax deductible.
Other home-use costs may be deductible, as well, depending upon tax
laws. You can check with your attorney or accountant about these
Kaufman has been a retailer for nearly 25 years and has owned her
own agency since 1990. She has operated a home-based agency since
2000. E-mail her at[email protected].
Making your Web
site an efficient medium
Implement Internet technology on your Web site that lets you
communicate with your customers directly in real time using live
customer-service software. You can communicate with customers using
text chat software instantly and engage your customers, said Bruce
Fisher, who formerly ran a small Internet company and is now
co-owner of an Internet travel agency, Honolulu-based Hawaii Aloha
Travel. Agents can push relevant information to customers about
specials and provide service without using the phone, he
Use effective Internet traffic-reporting software. This software
provides valuable information about the people visiting your site,
said Fisher. It also enables agents to assess the most popular
pages people are visiting -- and which ones are not so popular. You
can also find out what Web sites and search engines people are
coming from, said Fisher, adding that this information can be used
to track the progress of online advertising.
Partner with Internet-friendly suppliers. Fisher suggests choosing
partners that allow cobranding in locations of your choosing on the
Web site. Many suppliers offer affiliates complete control of the
code and enable back-end [access], allowing you to control how the
information is presented, he said.
Find an effective database-management tool that does all the things
you need it to do. There are so many solutions that everyone is
pitching that you dont know what to choose, said Fisher, adding
that a lot of the solutions dont have the functionality agencies
need. Agents should work with the provider to make custom changes
to the tools, Fisher said.
Use Web-based booking engines such as VAX
VacationAccess and WorldDirect to book trips. These tools
enable you to take advantage of bulk-discounted rates, specials and
Web fares while still making healthy commissions, Fisher said.
These sites are the surest way to beat online mega portals like
Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz, he said.