Moveable feast has clients biting

hen Bonnie Lee, owner of Travel Quest in Monticello, Minn., bought her bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle last year, she was thrilled because it was the first car she had ever called her own.

The mother of four grown children, her days of shuttling children in the big family car were over. Finally, she could concentrate on her growing travel business and buy the car she had always dreamed of: something cute and fun.

But soon her marketing savvy kicked in. Within a few weeks, Lee had transformed the "bug" into an eye-catching advertisement for her agency.

"I realized the car was so cute it made people smile," she said. With her agency's logo emblazoned on its side along with its Web address, phone number and the tag line, "Got the travel bug? We've got the cure," the car turned heads.

With the tag line 'Got the travel bug? We've got the cure' on its side, the car turned heads. Lee said she realized she was onto something when her agency got a call a few days after the ads appeared on the car.

"A gentleman said he wanted to buy a cruise and thought that anybody who drives a car like this has to be a fun person to book a cruise with," Lee said.

She approached preferred suppliers -- SuperClubs, Air Jamaica, MLT Vacations and Northwest World Vacations -- who agreed to advertise their names on the car in exchange for participation in her agency's marketing.

Lee also called a local radio station, KS95, with the idea of using travel prizes to draw and reward listeners. The station accepted, and they planned their first promotion, in conjunction with a mall and the bug.

The station asked listeners to don their "wackiest, wildest vacation outfit" and have their picture taken next to the car. The winner, chosen by the mall from among 150 entries, received a trip to a SuperClubs resort in Jamaica, arranged by Travel Quest.

The second promotion was with the station and a sporting goods store. Lee stuffed the bug with scores of yellow tennis balls. Customers -- and listeners on KS95 -- were invited to visit the car at the store's parking lot and guess how many tennis balls were crammed inside. The person who guessed the number or came the closest won a trip to Jamaica.

Then, for a big New Year's Eve party at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Lee teamed up again with KS95 and five restaurants for a raffle of five trips to Jamaica. The car was stationed at the Mall of America for all of December while raffle tickets were sold.

Coming up is a fall promotion at an annual bridal show. Lee said she and the radio station haven't devised the promotion yet but are working on ideas that, once again, would involve her moving yellow billboard.

-- Laura Del Rosso

Catching the travel bug

onnie Lee hasn't been in the travel business a long time, but that may be to her advantage, she said. "Airline tickets never were a main source of revenue for me, so I never had to adjust to commission cuts," she said.

Just a few years ago, Lee ran a very different small business: She made and sold windsocks. She designed them, hired a dozen people to sew them and sold 500,000 of them before selling the business in 1994.

"I had done it for 10 years, my kids were getting bigger and I wanted to do something different," Lee said.

So she built upon her love of the Caribbean and Mexico and started Travel Quest, using a similar model as her windsock business: working from home and hiring employees as her business grew.

Travel Quest's business cards aim to attract clients looking for a whimsical vacation. As with the windsock business, she based her operations on efficiency and a sense of whimsy.

"Our idea was to make the agency a fun place to buy a vacation," she said. "It's not supposed to be a stressful experience."

Lee started Travel Quest as an outside agency under the umbrella of a host agency. She concentrated on selling vacation packages for a small roster of preferred wholesalers.

When ARC opened up accreditation to home-based agencies, she jumped at the chance and became accredited in 1999.

Today, Travel Quest has three full-time outside agents and three full-time inside agents. It generates about $4.5 million in sales, 85% of which is in vacation packages, with just three or four suppliers.

"I earn top dollar on all of them and am treated very well," Lee said. "I have to be honest and say I don't know much about air, but packages I do know."

Lee's agency still is based in her home in Monticello, Minn., just as her windsock business once was. Her husband, Walt, is her bookkeeper and the agency's computer specialist.

"It's a good life. I wouldn't have it any other way," she said.

Marc my words

The sales tool that keeps on selling

our purse. Your briefcase. Your desk. Your refrigerator. I'd bet at least one of these has in it or on it an advertising specialty promotional item -- a small gift imprinted with the name or slogan of a savvy company.

Roughly two-thirds of the population wears, carries or displays such items daily, and three-quarters of these people know the name of the featured company without having to look.

Marc Mancini.Even without a huge advertising budget, it's possible to get noticed.

Here are five inexpensive ideas that can help lure sales prospects:

• Take the inside out. If your office has been in the same location for some time, frequent passersby may have forgotten you're there.

Draw renewed attention to your agency by occasionally using balloons, banners, posters or signs outside or in your window.

• Distribute fliers or brochures throughout your community. But how you distribute them is the key. Placing them, say, on windshields can annoy prospective clients.

Instead, negotiate with area retailers to display small stacks in brochure holders near their cash registers where they can't be missed.

• Use business cards to get noticed. Think of your business cards as minibillboards.

• Use specialty items as reminders. If you use such trinkets as a pen, a mug or a pocket calendar, make sure they are associated with travel and are items that potential clients would use frequently.

For those clients who earn you lots of commissions, you might consider buying something special. And present the item free of your logo. Don't worry -- they'll remember where it came from.

• A simple thank-you note can be a form of advertising. The least expensive marketing tool is thoughtfulness, and you can be sure your clients will remain loyal if you take the time to thank them in a handwritten, personal letter.

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

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