Getting their act together

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Juggling many tasks is arguably part and parcel of a travel agents ultimate success. But that doesnt mean that most retailers know how to juggle -- literally. At Shorts Travel Management, however, 11 members of the companys strategic management team learned to do just that.

Last year, David LeCompte, president of Shorts Travel Management, with home offices in Overland Park, Kan., and Waterloo, Iowa, headed up a corporate retreat in Colorado where the lead-in activity was a 90-minute training program from the Circus School of Leaders, conducted by Blue Wing Consulting at the Boulder Circus Center.

Participants learn the art of juggling, one ball at a time, said Larry Dressler, founder of Blue Wing Consulting. Within 30 minutes, most participants can manage two or three balls in the air. Then the focus shifts to team juggling. Again, its one, two then three balls rotated between two team members simultaneously.

The parallels between business and circus-act juggling were not lost on LeCompte, who every year holds a corporate meeting with his executive team to develop and finesse strategies for the coming year. This year, we signed up for the Circus School of Leaders workshop, he said. Not only was it fun, it was a great activity to reinforce the need for our team to work together.

Mastering the basics, added LeCompte, is crucial to any business success. Theres a lot of basic stuff you need [to learn] to master juggling, and if you dont master the basics you cheat yourself on real success and become a burden to others, he said A lot of the failures are based not on poor strategy but poor execution.

Shorts Travel Management, a $150 million corporate travel agency, has won some lucrative accounts that emphasize -- in a very significant way -- the concept of teamwork. Take for instance, one of the agencys newest accounts, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which spends approximately $32 million on travel expenses.

The agency has the daunting task of ensuring that all 129 teams participating in the NCAA mens and womens basketball tournaments get to their games -- and must do the bookings only four days before the tournaments begin.

Although Shorts competed with much larger agencies to win the account, LeCompte believes in the end it won for a variety of reasons. First, the agency had the foresight to design an online system that entered NCAA travel schedules on the Internet.

We put together an online portal on how we would handle their business, said LeCompte. We had done our homework. We understood the championship process. Furthermore, LeCompte believes teamwork also played an important role. Our team always works together to tackle a bid or a customer.

For his part, LeCompte joined the agency at a precipitous time in the industry -- in 1995, just two weeks before Delta cut travel agent commissions. LeCompte, who was working in medical health care sales, was getting bored with that industry and decided to join his wifes family business. His mother-in-law, Camille Hogan, is CEO of Shorts, which was founded in 1946.

Although LeCompte concedes he was a bit daunted by the prospect of airline commission cuts, he nevertheless saw a window of opportunity. A lot of smaller, regional agencies employed people who were hobbyists, he said. They werent really looking at travel agencies as a business. Furthermore, many agencies were simply not analyzing costs but instead just focused on rebating. It amazed me, said LeCompte.

For starters, LeCompte has grown the company, but conservatively. We dont want to jeopardize our current customer relationships. Our growth year to year has been right around 20%, he said, adding that Shorts also made some significant acquisitions like the 2001 purchase of Passport Travel, which designs incentive travel programs and arranges travel for conventions and large meetings.

The company also invested heavily in online reporting systems to maintain a competitive edge. Weve continued to invest in technology, said LeCompte. Last year, Shorts debuted a Web-based meetings- and event-management service that can be configured and administered by a clients meetings manager or any administrative staff with a working knowledge of how a meeting or event is organized and managed.

Only a very small percentage of the companys business comes from leisure travel. About 25% is derived from meetings with the lions share coming from corporate.

In the end, LeCompte believes its offering the client highly customized programs that enables it to win accounts over much large agencies. Its what got us our bigger accounts, he said. We give them what they want.

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

Destination Watch

Costa Rica goes upscale

Costa Rica has long been renowned as a destination whose sheer beauty and natural wonders were worth the trip alone. What it hasnt been readily known for, however, is a haven for affluent travelers, according to Sue Brown, owner of Sue Brown Travel Consultants in Boca Raton, Fla., whose firm caters to a luxury clientele.

Costa Rica is now a destination for the affluent, discriminating traveler, said Brown, thanks in large part to the opening of the Four Seasons Golf Club Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo.

Late last year, Brown sent several groups of high-end clients to the resort, and they came back thrilled with the hotel and the destination.

Whitewater rafting is a popular activity in Costa Rica.This was the Four Seasons first Christmas in Costa Rica, she said, adding that had the resort not been there, she would have booked these travelers instead at Caribbean resorts on some of the more upscale islands.

Brown highly recommended that travelers first rough it in other parts of the country and then end their trips at the Four Seasons.

You cannot just stay at the Four Seasons and think youve done Costa Rica, she said.

The country, Brown added, has entirely too much to offer in terms of natural attractions, such as rain forests and national parks. Travelers last stop should be the Four Seasons.

The 165-room property is set on the Papagayo Peninsula and boasts an 18-hole, Arnold Palmer golf course, a 16,000-foot spa, swimming pools, an eclectic array of restaurants and guest rooms with terraces and balconies. The resort will arrange for a host of water sports activities as well as hikes and day trips.

Brown said her clients have all said they look forward to returning to Costa Rica and the Four Seasons -- and hope to do so sometime soon.

Destination Watch is a travel agents look at an off-the-beaten-track destination. Agents with ideas for Destination Watch should contact Covey at [email protected].

Hand in Hand

When booking Ireland, agent is in like Flynn

When Bobbi Hansens seasoned clients ask for personalized vacations to Ireland she invariably turns to County Tipperary, Ireland-based Terry Flynn Tours. Hansen, president of Sunflower Travel in Wichita, Kan., said the ground operator has never let her down. Simply put, Terry Flynn delivers on its promises, she said.

Hansen said she has for many years booked groups both small and large with the operator -- and clients have always come home with rave reviews. One of the things she appreciates most, she said, is the way in which the company knows how to deal with veteran travelers.

Recently, Terry Flynn created an itinerary for a family of nine adults, some of whom are experienced travelers working in the aviation field. This group is very savvy about travel, Hansen said.

Ireland's Cliffs of Moher, on Galway Bay.The family, upon its return to the U.S., was thrilled with the way the trip went, she said, adding that they were particularly complimentary about their driver, who was extremely flexible about altering the itinerary on a day-to-day basis.

When they came back, they said the trip was exactly what they wanted, Hansen said.

Terry Flynn Tours is readily equipped to deal with veteran travelers, said Terry   Flynn, who heads the company. For starters, the company this year is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Secondly, not only do employees know Ireland inside-out, they collectively hang their hats on delivering personalized service -- regardless of the groups size, Flynn added.

He said agents simply tell the company what Ireland attractions and destinations the client wants -- regardless of whether the trip is a self-drive, chauffeur-drive or customized tour -- and Flynn will put a route together that will include most, if not all, of the requested elements.

Flynn travels once a year to meet with agents, who also can work through Terry Flynn Tours sales office in St. Paul, Minn. Were extremely personalized, down to the final detail, for both the agent and the client, Flynn said.

Hand in Hand highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to Covey at[email protected].

Going Home

Working from home: A perfect solution?

Becoming a home-based, fully accredited agency was, for me, the opportunity of a lifetime. I could keep my life simple, lower costs to compete more efficiently and manage business via the Internet.

Sound perfect? Well, not quite. Working from home can be a dream come true -- or your worst nightmare. Consider these factors before making that move:

" Getting out. If you are the type of person who routinely works in your bathrobe until you remember to change at dinnertime, then working from home may not be the best situation for you. It is important to get up, get dressed and get out. Leaving the house provides a distinction between going to work and being home at work. Driving my spouse to the train station, for example, enables me to run various business and personal errands early in the morning and in the evening. It also is a way in which to see and interact with people.

" Avoiding distractions. It is hard to blend work with family, community and work roles seamlessly. Delegating duties or seeking someone to help in certain tasks is also a way of alleviating stress. One needs to be disciplined and be able to change roles quickly when working from home -- and avoid creating stress when doing so.

To create an easy transition between work and a nonwork mode is important if you wish to make working from home a success. I always make it a point to eat away from my desk and in another part of the house.

I make certain that the business line only rings in my office and is turned off elsewhere in the house and vice versa. I make time for friends and family, and make time for work. I make it a point not to get up from my desk unless it is important and also not to go into my office to do work after business hours unless it is urgent.

" Winning over the critics. My clients had no difficulty adjusting to my office move because they rarely set foot in my commercial office space. Business was transacted over the telephone or fax and via the Internet. Interestingly enough, the people who were most vocal in disavowing my move to a home office were other travel agency owners.

Ironically, many of them now are out of business or have merged with other agencies or become independent contractors within mega-agencies.

" Change is good. My shift from a traditional agency location business to a home-based business has helped me work in a comfortable, pleasant, familiar environment. It also has reassured me that my initial sentiments were correct when I opened my travel agency in 1990. I did not open a business to work for someone else -- but to work for myself.

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

ASTA recommendations for making contributions to tsunami-relief efforts

1. Donate to recommended ASTA charities. Log on to the ASTA Web site (www.astanet.com), which has click-throughs to charitable organizations. To make it simple for travel agents, weve recommended they go to ASTAnet.com and click on the charity of their choice thats on the ground in Asia working on behalf of relief aid, said ASTA President and CEO Kathy Sudeikis. Were recommending that agents give generously. National charities linked to ASTAnet include the American Red Cross Online Donations and Catholic Relief Services Online Donations.

2. Encourage clients to go to ASTAs consumer Web site at www.travelsense.org to make charitable donations. Like ASTAnet.com, TravelSense.org has click-throughs to the American Red Cross Online Donations and Catholic Relief Services Online Donations.

3. Managers and owners should ask staff to consider their own contributions -- as well ask customers to participate in matching fund programs. Agents can ask their clients to contribute an extra dollar to the $20 service fee, with the dollar going to a charity and a $1 match coming from the agent for a total of $2 per service fee going to donations, said Sudeikis.

4. Remind clients that many traditional Asian destinations were not affected by the tsunami. Were really committed to making sure that people dont dismiss Asia overall as a destination, said Sudeikis. Were being prudent about reminding people that many of the destinations affected were destinations for more-seasoned travelers. Theres a lot of work to do in dispelling mistaken perceptions about which areas were impacted.

5. Get educated on what areas were devastated by the tsunami by logging on to Web sites that are closely monitoring recovery efforts. Helpful information can be found on the Pacific Area Travel Associations Web site at www.pata.org and Flight of Friendship (www.flightoffriendship.com).

Get More!

For more details on this article, see "Why I'll be on the Flight of Friendship."

Agents also can visit the joint Web site organized by Travel Weekly and Travel Guard International,www.travelcompaniescare.org, for a list of what other industry organizations are doing to help out the areas affected by the tsunami.  

 

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