From passion comes a niche

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When 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 agency.

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 entity.   The 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.

When developing 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 country.

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 the destination.

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 partners.

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 operation.

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 suppliers.

Through these meetings, for instance, she has made connections with such airlines as Qantas and Air New Zealand, which now serve as ANZ partners.

Those connections 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 said.

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.

All things 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.

For instance, 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.

Those conservative 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 industry.

To contact Agent Life reporter Claudette Covey, send e-mail [email protected].

The Perfect Itinerary

Experiencing the Netherlands

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.

Day 1

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.

The Mauritshuis at The Hague, home of Johannes Vermeers painting Girl With a Pearl Earring.Day 2

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 cuisine.

Day 3

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.

Day 4

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.

Day 5

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.

Hand in Hand

Alaska Unusual 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 Boomgarden.

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.

When discerning 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 appear seamless.

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 tours.

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 Unusuals president.

The company also found a guide for all the land activities they requested.

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 destination.

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 agency partners.

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].

Going Home

Finding the right help

Millicent Lee KaufmanOne 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 necessary.

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 service?

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 schedule.

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 office.

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.

Ticketing, invoicing 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 home.

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 issues.

Millicent Lee 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].

5 Things

Making your Web site an efficient medium

1. 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 said.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

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