Joining the competition

hree competing Rochester, N.Y., Vacation.com agencies -- J.B. Travel & Cruise Center, Park Ave. Travel and First Class Travel -- recently merged operations as the Rochester Travel Group.

All three had belonged to a nine-agency consortium until their owners began to sense that the relationship wasn't working.

"We thought we could accomplish more under one ARC number and Trams contract, cut costs and save money on trade organization memberships," said Rochester Travel Group's business development manager Mike Yarger, husband of one of the owners.

The co-owners of Rochester Travel Group, from left: Marilyn Yeager, Diane Celento and Margaret Yarger. The three co-owners, Marilyn Yeager of J.B. Travel, Margaret Yarger of Park Ave. Travel and Diane Celento of First Class Travel, decided to close Celento's corporate agency location and retain the two leisure sites, which enjoy lower rents and are situated in prime shopping areas.

"On top of the savings, we have been able to earn a lot more commissions with preferred suppliers by pooling our total sales," said Margaret Yarger.

By combining the three locations into two, the new company has at each location a larger and more diverse staff of agent specialists.

Overall, the $6 million Rochester Travel Group has six full-time salaried agents, four part-time agents and six outside commissioned salespeople. The agency operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and has a toll-free 24-hour hotline.

The new company reduced overhead costs by $2,500 a month, said Mike Yarger. Utilities, for example, were cut by at least 33% and trade membership fees by 66%.

"The total time we spend doing accounting has also been cut because now there is only one accounting person vs. three, so it frees us up to focus on sales," he said.

The Rochester Travel Group's headquarters is located in Chili, N.Y., outside Rochester. The company's co-owners have left the structure open so that other area agencies can join as affiliates if they want to while still operating under their own names. (The Rochester Travel Group founders gave up their names.)

"The reason we went this route was because we watched a lot of agencies folding up and closing. We have set ourselves up so that we can be an umbrella group for other agents in the Rochester area who are getting ready to retire or to close up shop," he said.

"Mergers give you all the strengths of individual agencies plus the ability to reach more clients because your resources, negotiating power and diversity all increase," added Yeager, who said she now has more clients to target directly.

Yeager said all three firms are strong individually, so she believes the merger will work, unlike transactions that combine weaker agencies on the verge of falling apart.

Celento, for her part, said closing down her office was difficult because she had founded it and operated it for 11 years, "but it was the best thing for my firm."

-- Michele San Filippo

Exploring student travel

ike Yarger, business development manager for Rochester (N.Y.) Travel Group, has had a lot of experience with kids as a former youth ministry retreat organizer. So what better specialty for him to establish than that of student travel organizer?

"When my wife, Margaret, and I first opened as Park Ave. Travel nine years ago, we wanted to focus on a market that wasn't being served in Rochester, which has 10 colleges in the area," he said.

Mike Yarger, business development director, specializes in student travel at the Rochester Travel Group's location in Rochester, N.Y. Student travel now represents almost 40% of sales at his agency. His firm offers cheaper prices by selling international youth hostel cards and international student/teacher ID cards, by working with Canadian suppliers and by flying students out of Toronto or Buffalo, which are more affordable gateways than Rochester.

"My past experiences with young kids helped me understand this clientele," he said.

"If you do a good job for college kids, there are those who return after graduating," he said.

His agency has seen a 15% rate of repeat business from students.

The agency markets by offering discounts on purchases, running ads in college newspapers and advertising under student services in the Yellow Pages.

Yarger recommends establishing a presence on campus with clubs and professors who organize class trips and need an agency to handle groups.

"But the most important thing I've learned is that you can make money," said Yarger. "A lot of agents seem to treat younger people with disdain because of age, lack of information and shortage of funds, but they are potential clients for life if you know how to serve them," he said.

Making a good first impression

hat you see is what you get." ... "Put your best foot forward." ... "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

These common sayings reflect the fact that first impressions are lasting ones.

And making a good first impression is one of the most important steps any business can take to attract and retain loyal customers.

That applies even more dramatically to our travel industry.

Through our efforts, clients actively seek to preview and experience place and product impressions.

Marc Mancini.Here are some ideas on how to go about making your agency convey the right and most enticing impression, one that reflects the trip to come:

  • Focus on the visuals. Dramatic pictures of exotic destinations lure clients, stimulate their imaginations and encourage them to "put themselves in the picture."
  • Keep it simple. There is no need to spend a lot of money or clutter up the office with lots of extraneous displays and posters.
  • As with brochures, you'll create more impact if you leave some areas unadorned, directing your client's attention to the evocative images you've carefully selected for them to focus on.

  • Create themes. One area of your office may emphasize cruises, another escorted tours.
  • Or you might like to organize your decor according to destinations, with the tropics prominent in one area and Europe in another.

  • Appeal to all the senses. The fragrance of suntan lotion is wonderfully evocative. The sultry sounds of flamenco music can fire the imagination. The tempting taste of brie may be enough on its own to sell an escorted trip to Europe.
  • The five senses are very powerful sales tools. And, no, I'm not saying you need to coat your office with suntan lotion, offer brie to clients or dance the flamenco.

    But you can evoke them by saying: "Wait 'til you try the wine in Burgundy. ..."

    I find that this tactic works almost as well as the real thing.

    Marc Mancini is a professor of travel at West Los Angeles College.

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