Media maven

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Kal London has been a travel agent for 30 years, but as host of his own radio show, "Travels with Kal," on the air since last July, he is taking on a new role as a member of the media. "It's a different feeling," he said -- and it's one he likes.

For example, when he taped a live broadcast amid the grand opening hoopla at the Royal Towers of Atlantis on Paradise Island in the Bahamas last December, he was happy to scoop the national radio shows by broadcasting the day before they did.

AtlantisHis on-air role at two Connecticut stations -- WMRD in Middletown and WLIS in Old Saybrook -- also helps "keep me very knowledgeable" about what's happening in the travel business, he said. "The best way for me to educate myself is by interviewing all these people," said London, the owner of All World Travel in New Britain, Conn.

The people London interviews on his show included local sales reps from many suppliers and his highest-ranking interviewee yet, Randy Garfield, president of Walt Disney Travel Co., whom he called "the feather in my cap."

But as he continues to get more into the role of on-air journalist, "I think our show has gone to the next level and gotten more professional," he said.

Like any budding journalist, he is trying to make the show livelier by bringing on guests whose agenda goes beyond promoting their own companies.

For example, when he did a live report about the opening of Las Vegas' Bellagio, he also interviewed a showgirl and an Elvis impersonator.

During last year's hurricane season, he spoke on the air with Ed Perkins from ASTA's consumer affairs department on consumers' rights in the face of canceled flights. And he highlighted a report from one of his agents who had been to Puerto Rico and was able to provide an eyewitness account of the damage the hurricane had done.

"If there's something in the news that is travel related, we try to get someone to talk about it," such as listeners surveyed about Carnival's total nonsmoking policy on its new ship, the Paradise. The response? Overwhelmingly positive.

Radio days

Kal LondonKal London says his radio show "Travels with Kal" has given his agency, All World Travel in New Britain, Conn., more visibility in his community as well as more business, though it is hard to quantify exactly how much. "I do know that many people call in and say they heard the show," and clients often book trips featured on the program.

The show started in a half-hour format but was expanded to an hour, changing its time slot to a more popular one -- from early afternoon to 5 p.m., "drive time" in radio lingo.

London pays $200 to the two sister radio stations that run his show and handle its production. But about 80% of the fee is picked up by suppliers that pay for ads that run before, during and after each show.

In fact, London foresees the day when the show will make a profit from selling commercial time alone. The basic format includes standard segments: "What's New" in Las Vegas, Disney and Hawaii, along with a segment called "You Asked for It," which attempts to answer client questions.

London's training for the show's basic interview format included previous stints doing travel shows on public access TV.

He suggested that agents interested in doing something similar approach radio stations in their area that will sell them broadcast time.

Better than machines

What makes booking with a travel agent better than booking on a Web site? Mindful of the recent incident in which ASTA expelled on-line agency Preview Travel for running a series of travel agent-unfriendly ads, we asked ASTA's executive committee this question. Their responses:

"Agents are better because we will 'vet' what the consumer reads on the screen. I had a client who brought in information he had gotten on the Internet about a property that was supposedly centrally located as well as the 'best little hotel in Florence.' I couldn't speak to the 'best' part, but at least I could tell him it wasn't centrally located." -- Joe Galloway, ASTA president

"An agent gives consumers a total packet of information that is unbiased and saves them time and money. Plus, the agent brings value to the transaction by providing personalized, special information. For example, I know about the most romantic hotel in the world, the San Pietro in Positano, Italy." -- Richard Copland, ASTA senior vice president

"What you get on the Internet is static, not that different from reading a brochure or a review in the newspaper. Travel agents give [this information] their value judgment. And even with Priceline.com, people don't know what price to ask for and sometimes will get the full fare." -- Kathy Sudeikis, ASTA secretary

"There is no bonding between you and the machine. Travel agents bring relationships into the equation; it's the ability to trust in your agent that is most important [to consumers booking with a live person]. And with an on-line agency, you're never sure that you're getting the lowest fare." -- Eric Ardolino, ASTA treasurer

Market that niche

by Robin Fetsch

In a previous column, I suggested ways to select your own special- interest travel niche. Once you have selected your areas of specialization, how do you get the word out?

  • Tell everyone! This is the perfect excuse to send a promotional letter to present and potential clients and to submit a press release to your local paper. Also, be sure to advise other local agents of your new specialization and offer reciprocal referrals.
  • Offer your services. Libraries, schools and clubs are often looking for interesting guest speakers. Contact your local library and ask if it would be interested in a slide presentation on your recent trip to, for example, South Africa. If your special interest is also your personal passion, be sure to actively promote your new expertise to fellow enthusiasts.
  • Change or refine your image. This is a great time to revitalize things. If you can afford it, get a new logo and change your business cards and stationery.
  • Partner with local businesses. You've decided to specialize in biking vacations in Europe? Go to the local bike shop and put together a joint promotion, offer a travel discount, post flyers, see if the manager would like to lead a small group.
  • Partner with travel businesses. Make sure you establish relationships with suppliers you trust. Let them know how you plan to promote their products. Ask if they can help with advertising or direct-mail dollars.
  • And enjoy your work once again!

    Robin Fetsch operates Specialty Tours from her home in Falls Church, Va. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

    A not so-radical alternative to service fees

    Here is another of Richard Turen's sales and marketing minutes, a regular feature:

    Why not decide that you are only going to stock your store with highly profitable items, from this day forward?

    Richard TurenTake the first step by eliminating all but the highest-quality cruises, tours and hotels from your inventory. Then set a minimum transaction requirement of perhaps $1,000 per person to use your firm's services.

    This is a quiet little "trendette" (smaller than a trend), that has largely gone unreported. But many of the top agents in the country now place a value on their services by not accepting business below a certain dollar threshold.

    Your staff will, of course, have to have flexibility for certain long-time clients. But think of the benefits of imposing product standards instead of service fees like every other travel lemming.

    Richard Turen is managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales and marketing consulting firm, as well as president of the agency Churchill & Turen, both based in Naperville, Ill. Contact him at [email protected].

    Another kind of business

    Here is a travel agency with a difference: The theater ticket business is half of the total mix at Access Travel, Edmonton, Alberta.

    The company buys its tickets from a variety of brokers, including New York-based Theater Direct International, for a net price and charges a service fee to clients, making money on the volume of tickets sold, which is substantial, said Aron May, the company's marketing manager.

    Access advertises this service in a variety of media and also publishes three separate theater guides for New York, London and Stratford, England, that are sent to a database of clients worldwide.

    The company is also building a Web site that will have complete listings of the shows in all three destinations, said May.

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