Independent reading

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n article in the Oct. 27, 1988 issue of Travel Weekly changed Susan Ferrell's life for the better. The piece was a profile of a San Jose, Calif.-based agency, Go -- The Travel Co. But it was the headline -- "$54,000 a year? In the agency business?" -- that immediately grabbed Ferrell's attention.

Then (as now), the average agent salary was much lower than $54,000.

Ferrell, who has "an entrepreneurial spirit," wanted to "put a company together where agents could make that kind of money."

The secret of that profitable agency? It was made up entirely of independent contractors. In what was then a relatively rare arrangement, agents at Go paid the owner for office space, use of computer equipment, and ticket stock out of their commissions, pocketing the rest.

The concept intrigued Ferrell, then working as the business manager for another agency but ready for a change. She brought the idea to one of her co-workers, Kathy McClain, (who would become a co-owner of the new enterprise but sold her interest several years ago).

In early 1989, the two flew to California to meet with Kathryn Moore, the owner of Go.

Moore had a consulting fee, "which I don't blame her for," said Ferrell. "We sat down and met with her for a couple of hours; I still have my notes. She answered every question honestly and was a huge help and a real inspiration for us. In fact, we even made our cubicle walls look just like they were pictured in the article."

When Ferrell began soliciting independent contractors for her new agency, Raleigh, N.C.-based Travel Experts, in 1989, it was a hard sell at first. Many agents "just didn't want to take the chance," she said. To lure them, she held an open house and ran ads in the local paper. "We networked a lot, contacting everyone we thought had potential," she said.

The agency grew as the industry changed. "Now, everybody has independent contractors," said Ferrell. "Agency owners see it as a way to stimulate their business at very little cost to them."

The concept has also been refined from its earlier permutation. Travel Experts started out essentially as a "rent-a-desk" firm -- a concept originally borrowed from real estate offices. As "brick and mortar" locations became less important, more independent contractors started working at home. With 65 independent agents at Travel Experts now, less than half -- 20 -- are actually in the company's two North Carolina offices; the rest are primarily east of the Mississippi, anywhere from Florida up to Philadelphia, according to Ferrell.

For Ferrell's agents, the home-based concept really became viable when Sabre Net Platform was introduced -- probably about five or six years ago, she guessed. This program allowed agents to access GDSs from an off-site location.

But whether home- or office-based, independent contractors "like being in control of their own business and their own destinies," said Ferrell. "Even if things aren't going that well, they can personally take steps to turn things around."

As a result, "It's much easier now than it used to be to find qualified candidates; the problem is that it isn't as lucrative," Ferrell said.

Ferrell uses several methods to find good agents. The most effective has been her relationship with the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents, a support organization for independent contractors. Travel Experts' listing on the group's host agency Web site brings frequent inquiries from potential independents.

Another way Ferrell taps into a pool of new talent is through her membership in the luxury consortium Virtuoso.

The company also has an arrangement with the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA), in which potential independent agents east of the Mississippi are referred to Travel Experts, which then pays for ICTA certification for the agents it contracted. But that hasn't brought any new agents for awhile, said Ferrell.

With agents scattered across the eastern U.S., communication is important. Ferrell makes an effort to stay connected with everyone, in spite of the geographical distance. "I just reread the article about Kathy Moore, and we are so much like her original concept. She was very close to her independents. We're very much in touch with all 65 agents by phone and e-mail. If I haven't talked to someone in a couple weeks, I e-mail them and ask, 'what are you doing?' " said Ferrell. "An [agent] in Kansas City had a baby, and she sent out pictures. We get e-mail blasts asking about destinations."

As for the issue of Travel Weekly that helped inspire her: "I have saved that doggone article all these years."

However, Ferrell (and Travel Weekly) were unable to locate Kathryn Moore. It seems that the agency she founded no longer exists. "I wonder where she is," said Ferrell. "I hope she's doing well. She had such a great business model."

The Perfect Itinerary

Five green days in Ireland

acqueline Fowler could be described as an "island lover" -- of Ireland and Britain, to be specific. Certified with Ireland's Shamrock Club as well as the Scots and BritAgent programs, Fowler is owner of Jacqueline's Journeys in Eureka, Mo. When asked for her recommendations for the Emerald Isle, she warned, "This is just a taste." You and your clients will probably find plenty of reasons to go back again.

Day One

"Tell clients to stay at Adare Manor, an easy drive from Shannon Airport. For the golfer, the property offers a course designed by Robert Trent Jones. Enjoy a casual dinner at the manor, then take time to walk and enjoy the grounds."

Day Two

"Rise early and head for Killarney. Your stay this evening will be at the Killarney Park Hotel, located on peaceful private grounds," with "wonderful staff and elegant room decor." The hotel "offers an excellent dinner in the Fig Tree restaurant. You'll be touring the Ring of Kerry area today; this is Ireland's most scenic drive. Enjoy a guided tour of of Muckross House and Killarney National Park." Next, it's a "quick stop in a traditional Irish pub, heading back through Moll's Gap in time for dinner."

Day Three

"Head to Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone for the gift of eloquence. A stop at Blarney Woolen Mills is a great shopping experience. You can find great Lace Bookmarks made from the finest Irish linen." You'll also find a "wonderful selection of Waterford Crystal. Grab a quick snack at Christy's, next to Blarney Woolen Mills. Enjoy your drive through farm country as you head back to the hotel."

Day Four

"Rise early. You'll be staying this evening at Dromoland Castle, where the staff's friendliness is memorable. A walk through the castle is a must. If you love tea, enjoy high tea at the castle." Complement that with "a drive or tour to Cliffs-of-Moher; a wonderful way to see the land and farms of Ireland. Be sure to walk to the observation tower; it offers a breathtaking view. On your return, take a walk to Bunratty Castle. You may choose an evening of entertainment at Bunratty Castle or enjoy dinner this evening at Dromoland Castle."

Day Five

The Shannon River in Limerick."Make a stop in Limerick. Enjoy Limerick City Gallery, John's Square and King John's Castle. Continue to Cashel and visit the Rock of Cashel," then it's "back to Shannon [to] prepare for your morning departure."

Hand in Hand

Business and pleasure

hen Bill Lind, a regional sales rep from British Airways, needs to travel, he may call on Meg North at Brownell Travel in Birmingham, Ala., to make the booking. "He's turned to us for consulting advice, and we've made reservations for him. He has a lot of respect for our experience," said North.

That's an example of the more personal aspect of the agency's relationship with British Airways. But there obviously is a professional one, too.

"Basically, we're considered a preferred selling agent for BA," said North. "We receive a lot of benefits -- benefits that I probably shouldn't discuss because I think they are different from region to region."

North did mention help with matters such as baggage weight clearances and releasing preferred seating. The carrier also has "an awesome special services team in London" that helps clients with special needs,"said Brownell. "If we've got a difficult client, they'll make sure special services is there to extend a greeting. If we've got a fare issue, which we don't have much, BA is always willing to review the situation for us. There's nothing that they're not willing to look at to come to a solution."

BA's special services team in London has helped Brownell Travel's clients. Brownell Travel, which has about 30 agents located throughout the state, pushes BA's product for both corporate and leisure travelers to London and Europe.

In fact, Brownell will set up meetings between corporate clients and airline reps "to see what we might be able to offer them that they're not getting on another carrier. We're not just saying 'buy BA,' we're able to compare what BA can provide with other carriers.

"For leisure clients, our role is to help them understand differences in airlines not just based on price but on value added."

In describing her agency's relationship with British Airways, North said, "It's a partnership. In today's environment, being able to reach an airline rep and have him respond to us -- that really is something."

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

Turen's Tips

We've seen the future -- and it's net pricing

f you have a moment, take a walk with me down an unexplored street to enter the Twilight Zone. You are in an imaginary world where airline pricing is so rational that there is only one price -- the net price available to the entire universe of possible purchasers, from suppliers to consumers.

Richard Turen.In this net-pricing scenario, the airlines simply announce one price per flight, in advance. It is thus up to the agent to add fees that will be both profitable and competitive.

Not likely, you say. Airlines need to constantly adjust their pricing. If seatmates can't discuss the wildly different rates they paid for their tickets, what would they talk about?

Rational pricing may or not occur within the airline industry in our lifetime. But then again, the way things are going, perhaps we will see the demise of the airline industry within our lifetime.

Net pricing is actually more likely to occur in other sectors of the business.

Along with industry benchmarks like the first commission caps in 1995 -- and Bob Dickinson's first travel agency sales call as a young DSM -- net cruise and tour fares should be the next big thing. There will also come a time when hotels begin dreaming about net rate stability.

These fares will give a decided boost to those retailers who have learned how to move market share at the lowest possible cost. It will also mean that a home-based retail business may be far more willing to work for a lower mark-up then the hard-core store (I am tired of the phrase "bricks and mortar").

What about the Internet players? Will they be willing to work for next to nothing until the hum of their mainframes is the only sound left in the distribution system? They just might.

How to prepare for the advent of net-fare pricing in the cruise and tour sectors? There are volumes to be said, but let's start with one suggestion. Right now is the time to develop first-rate benefits you provide for your customers. Now is the time to define in absolute terms why a higher mark-up is justified. And simply saying "I give good service" won't cut it.

Industry consultant Richard Turen owns the vacation-planning firm Churchill and Turen, Ltd., based in Naperville, Ill. A 23-year industry veteran, he has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's "Best Agents" list since the list began in 2000. He is at work on his third book, a game plan for delivering extraordinary service in a retail environment.

5 Things...

To keep on your desk at all times

he following items on your desk or in your cubicle or office will help drive sales:

1. Framed thank-you notes from clients who were particularly excited about the way you handled their bookings and/or resolved a nagging problem.

2. Framed copies of professional designations you've earned and awards you've received, especially from suppliers and/or for community service, so "clients recognize that your agency supports the community," said Jani Miller, president and CEO of Central Travel in Maumee, Ohio. These items can be a great daily ego boost for you, and a reminder to your clients of your professionalism. Destination certificates can be especially useful, said Miller. "If customers are booking Hawaii and they see we have an Australian expert on board, it just piques their interest."

3. Items you love, that express your personality and relate to travel. For example: knickknacks you've brought back from your favorite country, or in Miller's case, a putter: "I'm a golfer." Such items are "highly effective" at starting fruitful conversations with clients. Another classic that can't miss, according to Miller: a beautifully framed photo of you and your family at a destination you've recently visited.

4. A globe also works, especially if it's like the "gorgeous" one, with gemstones marking major cities, that Miller recently received as a gift. Helpful in explaining polar routes -- as well as showing why one can't have breakfast in Brussels, lunch in London and dinner in Dublin.

5. All the paperwork clients will need to sign when you receive their deposit. This is not a time to be digging through files or printing out forms.

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