Making custom a custom

oing ashore has many meanings. To a number of agents, it means customized excursions that yield additional earnings for the agency while providing more trip satisfaction to cruise customers.

The concept is not exactly new. Ask Meg McGriff North, executive vice president of Brownell Travel in Birmingham, Ala., who said any "true consultant" with experience and connections has long been offering special land arrangements to discerning travelers.

What is new, or relatively so, at Brownell and other Virtuoso agencies, she said, is access at Virtuoso.net to a database of exclusive shore excursions created by the trade group for sale by its member agencies.

North can access a selection of options in ports as far-flung as Santiago, Chile; Sitka, Alaska; and Sydney, Australia.

The Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia, is one of the options Meg McGriff North can select from a database of shore excursions at Virtuoso.net. She may sell by the old-fashioned methods, across a desk or over the phone, but North also can e-mail choices to clients for ease in making selections.

She then e-mails the ground operator -- one of the partners in a worldwide Virtuoso network -- the date of the booking, client names and other details.

The program was rolled out more than three years ago, but as overseas suppliers have seen agents using it for bookings, "the depth of the program has grown," North said. (Virtuoso said the program now encompasses other private sightseeing and FIT packages.)

Itineraries can be fairly similar to what all ship passengers are offered, but the differences are the private transfers in air-conditioned comfort and the chance to travel as a couple or in a small, private group, North said. The trips offer English-speaking drivers and expert guides, she said.

The Virtuoso itineraries also can be much more specialized than standard tours. As an example, clients can go behind the scenes at the Sydney Opera House for an opportunity to watch a working rehearsal, meet the stars and tour the facility, followed by tea at the opera house.

In another example, North said one of "the coolest" trips is a visit to the ancient Etruscan Tombs outside Rome, which, she said, "no cruise line is going to offer" because it is so specialized.

Sometimes, North -- an FIT specialist -- simply arranges for a car and driver to be available to clients who don't want or need a specific sightseeing program.

Special itineraries cost clients double, triple or quadruple (depending on the number of travelers) a standard shore excursion.

So, what is the pitch? North said her selling points are features noted above: the expert private guide -- whom "clients can hear" -- the small size of the group, the comfort of the transportation plus, most of all, the vastly more enriching experience.

And what is the return for the agency? North said it is "not huge," but she sees it as part of the overall return on selling the cruise itself. Nevertheless, the pay on the Virtuoso shore programs averages a respectable 10%, North said.

Besides, she added, depending on how much time the agent has had to spend concluding a booking, the agent might add a "set-up fee" to supplement the commissions.

-- Nadine Godwin

Enriching clients and your agency

rownell Travel is a $55 million Virtuoso agency with four locations in Alabama. It is common practice among the 30 (out of 70 total) staffers in Brownell's leisure division to offer customized shore excursions to cruise passengers.

Meg McGriff North.Meg McGriff North, the agency's executive vice president, said she understands that making the extra effort to go outside a cruise line's land-tour offerings can be daunting, especially to retailers who are not well connected to overseas ground operators or are relatively new in the business.

As a result, they are missing an opportunity to boost earnings and provide customer satisfaction.

North offered a few suggestions, as follows:

• Start small. If you are knowledgeable about attractions and service providers in one or a few locations, offer specialized options in those ports, working only with suppliers you know and are comfortable with. "Sell to your strong suit," North said.

• Take advantage of destination-specialist training programs to gather intelligence on products and service providers with shore excursions in mind.

• Also, take another look at programs offered by your consortium or franchiser, again with shore excursions in mind. Identify relevant suppliers or sources the group has tapped as trustworthy and reliable.

• Charge service fees or price the excursions so you are adequately compensated for your labors. In addition, if you are paying for trips in a foreign currency, consider charging clients a fee for that service, too.

North said that in her experience, settlement with overseas providers tends to be of two types:

If the supplier is a credit card merchant, the customer can pay with the card and the agency collects commissions from the supplier. Alternatively, unless the customer pays cash, the agency can be the merchant. In either case, the agency remits net to the supplier.

All payment systems have costs (tracking commissions to ensure collection or the card merchant fees, for example) that also must be taken into account for calculating charges to the client.

• Finally, for non-ARC agencies, North suggested affiliating with a Virtuoso agency, which would give access to the database of custom shore excursions that Virtuoso creates for its members.

"We are always looking for excellent agents to sell [Virtuoso products]," North said. -- N.G.

Puppy love

t's been a (great) dog's life for Beryl at Academy Travel in Colorado Springs, Colo. Last year, office manager Nancy Heck volunteered to provide a foster home for a puppy on behalf of a philanthropic organization in Santa Rosa, Calif., called Canine Companions for Independence.

The California organization breeds puppies -- all labradors, golden retrievers or mixes of the two -- to be service companions to humans who are deaf or have other disabilities.

Heck said she was enticed to volunteer after hearing on the radio about the program and the "desperate need" for puppy-raisers.

Nancy Heck, office manager at Colorado Springs-based Academy Travel, with foster dog, Beryl. So Heck brought Beryl, a yellow labrador, to Colorado Springs last June, when the puppy was about 8 weeks old.

Beryl came to the office every day, effectively becoming the office mascot.

Heck's responsibilities, besides providing affection, included teaching basic obedience and about 30 simple commands, and, she said, colleagues at Academy Travel all "loved Beryl," too, and helped with training and reinforcing the basic training.

The dog greeted clients and was "such a happy spot for us in the office and for clients coming in" right after Sept. 11, a time of great stress, Heck said.

By August, it was time for Beryl to move on, and Heck returned her to Canine Companions for six months of advanced training.

She said there is a 38% success rate in training the dogs, which means Beryl might be deselected.

When a dog does not pass muster, the puppy-raiser gets first dibs on the dog, and Heck said she will exercise her option.

However, if Beryl is in the top third of her class, Heck will travel to California for her "graduation" in late winter -- and make plans to take on another puppy at the beginning of summer.

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