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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
"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."
"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."
"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
"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
"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."
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
"For leisure clients, our role is to help them understand
differences in airlines not just based on price but on value
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
"Hand in Hand" highlights successful examples of agents and
suppliers working together. Send suggestions to Agent Life editor
Claudette Covey at [email protected].
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
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
Net pricing is actually more likely to occur in other sectors of
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
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.