Getting beyond the clouds

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"Right at the last instant the shadow from the moon sweeps across towards you -- and within seconds, it's dark and you see this black hole in space with a corona."

That is Gary Spears describing what it's like to witness a total eclipse of the sun. Spears has been leading eclipse trips since 1991, and it's turned into a nice specialty for the agency at which he is executive vice president -- Carlson Wagonlit/Spears Travel in Bartlesville, Okla.

www.mreclipse.com.The first time Spears tried to see an eclipse, he was in Hawaii and his view was "clouded out" by, yes, a cloud passing over the sun. "Clouds are always a possibility, so we have to ask, where in the world are the best weather prospects?"

Spears is assisted by Fred Espena, an astrophysicist who works for NASA (whose Web site is calledwww.mr.eclipse.com) who has "got down to a science" the best sites for viewing this natural phenomenon.

"He'll research patterns for the last 20 years to get statistics on where the best weather is going to be," said Spears. For example, last year "the press played up parts of Europe" as the best site for viewing the eclipse -- especially Cornwall, England. But while eclipse seekers who took that advice "got clouded out, we went to Turkey instead and had no problem," said Spears.

The fact that the best eclipse-viewing often occurs in exotic destinations adds to its appeal -- it's "not just going out in your backyard and watching it," he said.

In addition to Turkey, other places Spears has led trips to include India and Bolivia.

The Bolivia trip included travel to a spot in the Andes, which felt like "the middle of nowhere, where the altitude was 12,000 feet -- and the stars were an awesome sight in themselves, since we were so much closer to them than usual."

To get there, the group rode on a train with the Bolivian army, who "helped to unload our telescopes carrying machine guns on their backs," said Spears.

Actually viewing an eclipse -- which can last from 40 seconds to about four minutes -- "is really hard to describe," he said.

"It's almost an emotional event. You realize the awesomeness of what's happening."

Don't eclipse these sales

With a solid base of repeaters returning to his eclipse trips year after year (see story above), Gary Spears, executive vice president of Bartlesville, Okla.-based Carlson Wagonlit/Spears Travel, uses selective, low-key marketing tools such as direct mail.

www.spearstravel.com.He usually tries to keep the groups small (under 100 people). Last year, when the destination was Turkey, he didn't even advertise. However, for a trip to Aruba that included a cruise and thus had more space, he did take out ads in special-interest publications such as Astronomy Magazine.

The trips are also promoted on the agency's Web site, www.spearstravel.com, which links to other astronomy sites.

And although trip frequency is limited because total eclipses only occur on average every 18 months, there are other kinds of star phenomena that Spears feels will draw his base of affluent, intelligent clients interested in astronomy and photography.

For example, he has already done several runs to view the southern stars in Bolivia; and he is researching the possibility of viewing what are called annualler eclipses, during which the moon doesn't totally block out the sun and which happen more often than a total eclipse. Then there is the poetically named Transit of Venus -- an astronomical event during which Venus passes between the sun and the Earth.

Peer Support

How can you get good business management advice for free?

From your peers. After all, who can give you better strategies about running an agency than another professional travel agent?

Consider all of the agency managers you've met at conferences and trade events. Select four or five whom you respect and with whom you don't compete -- and see if they might be interested in developing a peer networking group. If possible, visit your peer agencies to ensure that they complement the type of business you provide.

Dan McManus.Here is how the setup might work. Propose a once-a-month or a once-a-week telephone conference. AT&T and other long-distance carriers can set up a conference call. The cost is surprisingly cheap, especially when you consider the value of the complimentary advice you will be receiving.

Before your conference call, fax an agenda to everyone so they can be thinking about the topics to be discussed. Solicit their comments before you set the agenda so you can make sure everybody's needs are met.

If you discover that one person needs more in-depth advice than is possible during the call, see who in the group is best able to help and suggest they set an appointment to speak privately.

If possible, meet face to face with your peer group once or twice a year. This will deepen the relationship and help give further insight into each other's businesses.

Q: I don't want employees to discuss their salaries with each other. Can I have a written policy to prevent this?

A: No. Such "blanket prohibitions" probably violate a provision of the National Labor Relations Act, designed to protect an employee's right to discuss the terms and conditions of his employment. About all you can do is request that employees keep this information confidential.

Former agency owner Dan McManus is the publisher of the newsletter the Successful Worldspan Agent. Contact him at[email protected].

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