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