From real estate to travel

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It's taken a while, but Marie Dubuque is beginning to realize that she is, in fact, a travel agent--of a special kind.

The owner of St. Louis-based Condo Corner, Dubuque started out selling homes. But three years ago, because she had so many requests for rentals, she decided to try the condo market.

Dubuque joined Condominium Travel Associates, a Stamford, Conn.-based agency consortium that helps companies market condos. Now her commissions range from 12% to 20% for condos, villas and home rentals, mostly in Florida.

In a good week, she'll book 10 clients. In the off-season, clients generally pay about $700 for a weekly rental. They pay around $1,000 in peak season. Last year she made $20,000--and she expects to double that figure this year.

Her clients prefer renting condos because they usually offer more space and often are less expensive than hotels. "People are looking for someplace more like home," she said. Most of her clients want amenities such as pools, full kitchens, a balcony and a separate dining and living room. "I get mainly families but some couples as well," she said.

Dubuque tells anyone who asks that there is no reason others could not emulate her, although her first six months were slow.

She advertises her service in local newspapers, and her husband, Mark, a computer-savvy engineer, designed a Web page for her business. The Internet is a mixed blessing. Dubuque receives many inquiries, but because of its nature, the Internet has a lot of casual browsers who never become clients.

"I try to weed out the nonserious lookers by asking them a lot of questions such as their price range," Dubuque said. She said she has a lot of repeats, and word-of-mouth referrals also help.

The only pitfall is that business is cyclical, said Dubuque. August is a slow time, but business is good January through Easter. Dubuque said she sometimes gets requests from her clients for air tickets. She refers them to full-service travel agents because she has no intention of getting away from her niche.

Economic downs don't dim business

Turmoil in the stock market might be making headlines, but agents said it isn't giving clients second thoughts about spending money on travel.

"Nonissue," said John Craig, president of Pathfinder Travel in Olathe, Kan., adding that the Midwest economy in general is strong.

James Mitchell, president of Dartmouth Travel in Hanover, N.H., said business and leisure bookings in general are holding steady. He doesn't believe the stock market's ups and downs determine whether high-end travelers continue to take trips, because "that's not where their discretionary dollars are."

"We have greater unease due to world events than to stock market events," he said. A client, for example, just canceled a Bombay-Singapore cruise because he was worried about safety. "We have a far greater problem than the cycles of Wall Street. How can we address and assauge [clients' safety] fears?" Mitchell said.

Nancy Pennington, manager of Orange Belt Travel in Bartow, Fla., said it's too soon to tell how the stock market will affect travel spending. "If it was down and stayed down for a couple of weeks, maybe there would be [effects]. What causes concern is when the media start scaring people."

Laugh and learn

Having trouble getting your agents to pay attention to sales training? Consider getting some help from an unlikely source: John Cleese, the British comic actor who has starred in such movies as "A Fish Called Wanda."

Cleese also stars in a variety of videos and CD-ROMs on selling and cofounded a company, Video Arts, whose training materials are based on the premise that humor will help people remember what they've learned.

Now Chicago-based, Video Arts offers a tapes and CD-ROMs on selling and management. Its most recent tape, "Demanding Customers," presents studies of difficult clients in various settings, including inside a travel agency. The videos are not cheap but may be a worthwhile investment for the training-challenged. They cost $870 but can be rented for a week for $250 or previewed for $50. Call (800) 553-0091, Ext. 2995, for more information.

Asking the accountant

Karen Kalmus, president of Travel Agency Accounting Systems, Kansas City, Mo., answered the following questions during a recent ASTA teleconference:

Q: What are the best ways for an agency to save money and maximize cash flow?

  • Look for ways to reduce rent, especially if your location doesn't help you retain clients (if you have almost no walk-in business, for example).
  • Pay employees less often. A twice-a-month pay period is better than a weekly pay period. You should also be able to engineer a hold-back period of at least one week; that means employees on a bimonthly schedule get paid for the week or two before the current week.
  • Adjust payroll taxes' pay dates to give you more cash flow. Payroll taxes can be held for up to 20 days, which can work like a 20-day loan.
  • Set up a tightly controlled accounts payable system. Always pay your bills in full by the due date-- but never before that time.
  • Put office expenses such as advertising and magazine subscriptions on a credit card, which may give you 25 to 50 days to pay.
  • Leasing equipment allows you to hold on to your working capital by using expensive equipment without an upfront cost.
  • Be warned: Extending credit to clients is the single most disastrous financial practice you can engage in.
  • Q: What are the most important financial documents for me to review regularly? I can't read everything my accountant gives me immediately.

  • There's no excuse to ignore the basic profit-and-loss statement you receive from an outside accountant. However, the volumiunous reports from a back-office system can go on the back burner.
  • Other reports to review on a weekly basis include the checking account register; accounts receivable; accounts payable; the ARC report; sales invoice, and cash receipt reports.
  • Finding an accountant

    "Don't be an accountant's guinea pig," noted Karen Kalmus, president of Travel Agency Accounting Systems, Kansas City, Mo., advising agents on how to find a good accountant during an ASTA teleconference. According to Kalmus, it takes some specialized financial knowledge to handle an agency.

    "I'd be wary of a candidate who says, 'A travel agency's books are just like anybody else's books.'" Agents are different because ARC requires that sales must be processed within a week's time; most businesses handle sales on a month-to-month basis, said Kalmus. Also, agents often get money in upfront payments from clients for suppliers but don't pay those funds out for a week or two. The less-than-savvy accountant might track these payments as additional sales, she noted.

    Kalmus suggested that agents look for accountants with other agency clients and ask for references to check out. In addition, agents should question the candidate to see if he or she has the necessary industry knowledge, including information on ARC and non-ARC ticket payments.

    Net News

    Food Channel

    Need a few restaurant ideas for clients traveling to Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco? The Dining Out section of the Food Channel posts "top trendworthy" restaurants in some of "American's favorite food cities." Sniff out: www.foodchannel.com.

    Festivals.com

    There are lots of fun things going on around the world. How about the Great Christmas Pudding Race in London on Dec. 5? Search by destination and time of year or special categories such as arts and sports. Go to:www.festivals.com.

    Compiled by Jennifer Dorsey. Send ideas to [email protected]

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