Gettin' by with a little help

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For years, Dick and Janet Dortleff had dreamed of leaving corporate America and starting a business of their own. So when Dick was offered early retirement in 1999, the pair decided to start a cruise-only agency.

"The only problem," he said, "was we knew nothing about the travel business."

Dick spent 27 years selling scientific instruments to research labs. Janet was a human resources professional.

They did know a little about cruising though. They knew they liked the experience because they had been on a few cruises. So they turned to the travel agent who booked their trips, Carol Laurie in Brecksville, Ohio. Dortleff said it was "the best decision we ever made" to partner with Laurie while she taught them the business.

Under their agreement, Laurie mentored them for three years, and then they were on their own. The Dortleffs also bought rights to the name of Laurie's agency; now there are two agencies in Ohio called The Cruise Company, but they are different businesses. The agencies differ in that Laurie's is a storefront, whereas the Dortleffs converted two of their bedrooms into a home office in Concord, Ohio.

Dortleff declined to reveal sales volume, but the agency now has two additional employees, one who works in the Concord home office and the other in a home-based site 50 miles away.

The Cruise Company sells only four suppliers, with Holland America Line accounting for three-quarters of the business. For still more focus, the bulk of the HAL bookings are Alaska cruise tours. The agency, an Ensemble member, has been promoting Ensemble's hosted HAL cruises and "has found they sell very well," Dortleff said.

The agency defined its business narrowly after learning "very quickly that to be profitable, we needed to have a limited number of partnered suppliers," Dortleff said.

The Cruise Company chose four Ensemble preferred suppliers to meet customers' needs: HAL, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Globus for its Avalon Waterways' river cruises.

"If we cannot convince people to buy one of these four cruise lines, we tell them we cannot help them and that they need to go to a different agency," Dortleff said.

But why does HAL predominate? Dortleff said it's because HAL supported The Cruise Company when it launched.

"When we were just starting, HAL was the only cruise line to believe that we were really interested in growing our business although we were home-based," Dortleff recalled. "Back in 1999, new home-based agencies were not taken seriously by many cruise lines. HAL has always given us phenomenal support."

The agency's three other vendors also are on the short list because they provide "the best support," he said.

Alaska is a further special focus because it is the Dortleffs' favorite destination.

"It is fun to sell, as everyone comes home thrilled," Dortleff said.

To operate the business, the Dortleffs set themselves up with ACT, a well-established, off-the-shelf database manager. They also installed the WinCruise booking engine for cruise-only agencies.

Only three people work in their home office, but the agency has five networked computers there, plus a laptop for use on sales calls. The Dortleffs said their years in the corporate world taught them the value of using computers for high productivity.

Dortleff said they "realized very quickly that clients were not going to come and knock on our door." Cruise nights, especially those emphasizing Alaska, are a favorite promotional tactic.

The agency maintains a Web site that promotes one supplier (HAL) and one destination (Alaska), but consumers cannot book at the site.

"We want calls," Dortleff said. "Most people won't use a booking engine for an $8,000 or $10,000 trip. People want information, and most are confused about Alaska. We sell knowledge, service and expertise."

Think you're a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Nadine Godwin, Agent Life editor, at [email protected], and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put "Agent Life" in the subject line.

Marc My Words

Agents don't take advantage of all available resources

By Marc Mancini

Why would a travel agent or supplier join an industry association? In part, for the benefits that come with membership. But do agents take advantage of these benefits, or even know what they all are? Not always.

So I decided to contact organizations that serve the agent community with this question: "What benefits do you offer that your members don't seem to take full advantage of?" Here's what those who responded said:

Cruise Lines International Association: Have you heard of CLIA's ACD (Associate Cruise Degree) program? If you're a travel professional who also teaches, the ACD program is a great opportunity.

First, your school must become a Participating Learning Center. The annual fee is $319 plus a one-time application fee of $80. CLIA will then send one of its trainers to present five of its three-hour seminars during two-and-a-half days to your students at no charge to the Learning Center. By passing a series of exams, students earn an associate cruise degree, which can eventually count toward Accredited Cruise Counselor certification if the student becomes an agent at a CLIA-affiliated agency.

Local travel agents can attend these sessions, too, and not only get CLIA certification credits but also perhaps spot a top prospect for future employment.

The Travel Institute: What many people don't know is that much of the Travel Institute's training has become virtual. Monthly teleconferences, weekly online study groups and about a half-dozen online courses provide the convenience that today's learners crave.

The Travel Institute also offers all its specialist and certification courses in PDF in addition to the print version. Also, courses have been unbundled, providing cost benefits to candidates who would like to purchase the test-only option. 

 

ASTA: The society offers a wealth of public relations resources, yet few agents seem aware of them. ASTA has fashioned PowerPoint presentations, press releases and scripted speeches on such topics as avoiding travel scams, tips for women travelers, holiday travel strategies and advice for when to buy or not buy travel online.

They're perfect for a presentation at a chamber of commerce meeting or an article to send to a community newspaper.

ASTA also provides more than 50 customizable ads that promote the value of using a travel agent.

National Tour Association: The NTA's mission has long been to concentrate on the needs of tour operators, suppliers and destination management organizations but not travel agents. That's peculiar, since some estimate that as much as 85% of all escorted tours are sold by agents.

This year, though, the NTA began considering how to bring more business opportunities to its members, including educating them on how best to work with agents.

If you operate escorted group departures, the NTA has an online search program that, given your criteria and itinerary, will identify hotels, attractions, dining venues and other suppliers that could become components of your group departure.

Cruise and Travel Agents Only: It seems everyone in cruising knows Charlie Dubinsky, a tireless advocate of agent training and fam trips. Dubinsky's association affords three benefits that he feels are underutilized: the Cruise and Travel University agent training program; an online space where agents can list available staterooms; and promotional e-mail blasts.

Marc Mancini is an industry speaker and consultant who chairs the travel program at West Los Angeles College.

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