Menu for success

The popularity of gourmet eating and cooking tours in Italy and France has boosted visitor arrivals to those already popular countries in recent years.

Can a similar interest in Thai cuisine do the same for the somewhat more exotic destination?

Satays and spring rolls might not be enough to draw visitors all the way across the ocean, but the popularity of Pad Thai doesn't hurt business, according to Jeannie Radek, manager of Travel in the Main in Evanston, Ill.

Radek should know: Her specialties are Thailand and cooking, and she has used both to draw clients to that country and to her agency.

"I first saw the interest in Thailand increase in 1987, which was 'Visit Thailand Year' in honor of the king's 60th birthday," she said.

Jeannie Radek.The promotion was launched by the country's tourism board and comprised print ads and a host of special events, orchestrated with the help of a public relations firm.

One of those events was a cooking demonstration, which Radek was invited to provide at a local Williams-Sonoma store by the tourism bureau.

"My agency was exposed to clients that way, and also it exposed Thailand to a few more people," she said.

Originally from Thailand and a former cooking instructor, Radek is not a food snob and offers a relaxed approach to clients who ask for restaurant suggestions in her homeland.

"I just tell them that you can't find a bad restaurant in Thailand if you try, and the unknown places are usually the best," she said.

Radek does not confine her destination knowledge to matters of the palate, however, offering in-depth information on everything from rugged safaris to luxurious honeymoon locations.

"I can arrange trekking in the north, for example, where people can interact with the hill tribes, ride elephants and go bamboo rafting over the rapids," she said.

She noted that while clients should be fit to embark on this type of adventure, they don't have to be athletes.

"These are low hills, and the hiking is more like walking," she said.

By contrast, honeymooners can stay at the upscale Amanpuri boutique hotels, where they can relax or try their hand at scuba diving along the carefully preserved limestone reefs.

Add in surprisingly low air fares and a favorable exchange rate, and you have a destination that makes you lick your chops.

Know thyself

It is impossible to listen to Jeannie Radek of In the Main Travel, based in Evanston, Ill., talk about Thailand without wanting to go there.

And this, she would argue, is the point: Her extensive knowledge of the subject is what sells it.

Radek, who owned her own agency for 10 years before joining In the Main, touts the other agents in her office, all of whom have specialties, but notes that becoming a destination specialist is not a one-shot deal.

"Attending a seminar or obtaining a certificate doesn't make you a specialist," Radek said.

Boats displaying traditional Thai food."I go to Thailand every year to make sure the hotels are up to standard, and I explore the areas most people don't know about," she said.

A case in point is an area in the northeast where she "talked some people into going" because of recent dinosaur discoveries.

"You can go there and watch them dig," she said. "This isn't even in the brochures yet."

Radek said selling her former agency enabled her to concentrate on her specialty, and she specializes in offering customized FITs.

"I do use tour operator packages for clients who want to visit Thailand for a week and see the general sites," she said.

She markets her expertise via ads in the Yellow Pages under the heading Thailand Travel and Tours.

Is it cruise fire-sale time?

I was driving home last night in a good mood. I had the top down, it was a balmy summer night and I was listening to the news on the radio.

A lead story was delivered by a nearly breathless reporter explaining that cruise lines had overbuilt and there is now a sudden excess of cruise berths resulting in a real "buyer's market."

An executive at Travel Services International explained that his firm was selling one-week cruises for $499. The story left the listener with the impression that cruise prices are at an all-time low.

Richard Turen.The fact is there is some current overcapacity, and we are approaching the fall, a time when cruise lines normally have excess capacity.

But what is different this year is that the consumer is being told there are all sorts of deals in the marketplace. You need to tune in to that perception. Here are some strategies you might want to implement to ride this wave:

  • Announce an "all-lines sale" lasting 72 hours. Have an agent assigned to each line and expect that agent to know current offerings forward and backward. Prepare recommendation sheets for each line, highlighting the best offers.
  • Hold a late summer sidewalk sale for distressed cruise merchandise. Invite suppliers to set up tables outside your office or in some public venue such as a shopping center. Invite only lines willing to promote special deals. Take deposits on the spot.
  • Issue a press release explaining that cruise prices are now at 1986 levels and offer some examples. Announce your office will be open longer hours this week to handle the inquiries during this "unique cruise-buying opportunity."
  • Finally, schedule a staff meeting to discuss how you will handle inquiries from passengers already booked on cruises who have heard that prices are falling rapidly.
  • Richard Turen is an industry consultant and travel agency president. Contact him at [email protected].

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