Moving on up

Does this sound familiar? You start an agency from ground zero and spend the next few years struggling to attract business, all the while holding down the fort in the office.

You can't hire enough people to help you because you don't have the income -- and you don't have the income because you are too busy answering the phone to get out there and rustle up sales.

If this scenario hits uncomfortably close to home, take heart. Andy Holloman, owner of Carlson Wagonlit Travel Raleigh Durham in North Carolina, is a case study in how to successfully break this cycle.

"I started an agency in 1991 in Chapel Hill [N.C.] and, for four or five years, I struggled either alone or with two or three others," he said. "It's just hard to be able to focus and grow your business when you have to operate it yourself."

Admitting that he was "barely making a living," Holloman even supplemented his income by waiting tables.

His big break happened in 1995 with the creation of a company Web site, although admittedly without a clear idea of what its purpose would be. He noted that 1995 was before many other agencies had established an on-line presence.

Holloman said his Web business unexpectedly exploded. To his surprise, the Web site attracted clients from around the country, enabling Holloman to develop a mailing list of clients to whom he sent e-mail advisories of air fare sales, cruise discounts and other deals.

As the list grew, the sales grew. The company literally doubled in size that year.

Rather than rest on his laurels, in 1997 Holloman used the cash infusion to purchase another agency with a local following, a "super staff" and a strong corporate segment.

"With those two offices combined, we became a $5 million agency. Then I bought two more offices in 1999, which brought us to a little over $10 million," he said.

Holloman said his merger with more traditional agencies paid off as he began to downsize the Internet portion of his business to no more than 15% or 20% of overall sales.

"The interesting twist to our Internet success is that we found it was a difficult way to build a long-term client base," he said. The site did attract some repeat business, but he realized that true client loyalty is easier to foster in a brick-and-mortar agency.

Holloman, who is grateful for the cash boost his Web sales gave him to expand, said he now uses his site more to serve his existing client base rather than to market to new customers.

And these days, with some 22 employees to help him, he no longer has to go it alone.

By Felicity Long

Scouting out staff

When Andy Holloman was finally able to hire a staff to help him run his Carlson Wagonlit Travel Raleigh Durham in North Carolina, he made an effort to attract and keep the best people he could find.

While his methods of scouting out good applicants are mainstream -- he runs occasional ads and keeps his ear to the ground to hear if anyone good becomes available -- he said running a profitable business is the best recruiting tool he's found.

"For us, the secret to keeping good staff is creating an environment in which good people can do well financially," he said.

As it became known that the agency was doing well, he said, motivated self-starters came out of the woodwork, and because they make "good money," they were motivated to stay.

Holloman also offers his staff plenty of independence and flexibility, particularly those with the most experience, and he encourages them to travel.

The less-experienced agents use travel to learn about the products they are selling, he said, and the more-established agents see it as a reward.

"We just had someone who did a fam trip to the Bahamas, and someone else is going on a cruise next month," he said.

Nowadays, the agency is likely to attract even more good employees, thanks to its recent inclusion in Inc. 500, an annual magazine survey that singles out noteworthy private firms.

"We are number 333, and it feels great," Holloman said. He added the victory is especially sweet considering the pervasive gloom-and-doom predictions about what the Internet and commission caps would do in the travel agency industry.

"Agents don't need to be scared," Holloman said. "Now there are a whole lot of great things happening that agency owners can take advantage of," compared to when the "so-called bad stuff happened."

Now a Carlson Wagonlit affiliate, Holloman regards acquisition opportunities, the Internet and increasingly sophisticated agents -- "because the weak ones are not going to be able to hang in there" -- as examples of the good stuff.

Marc my words: Travel oddities, part 2

by Marc Mancini

In a recent column, I listed a few things about the travel business that absolutely puzzle me. Since then, I've come up with even more of these enigmas:

  • How can FIT stand for foreign independent travel (or whatever) if it applies to domestic trips, too?
  • How can it be that people are getting taller while aircraft seats and pitch are getting smaller? Doesn't this refute Darwin's theory of evolution?
  • Do taxi drivers think those plastic dividers between them and the back seat protect them, especially since they usually keep them open? Is there an invisible force field we don't know about?
  • How can we listen to a client for several minutes, then realize that we haven't heard a thing they're saying?
  • Why are signs popping up in hotel rooms that warn us not to hang anything on the ceiling sprinklers? Does this apply to NBA players exclusively?
  • Why do people at the New Orleans Mardi Gras fight over strings of cheap plastic beads, then spend $100 for a gourmet meal?
  • Why do people on escorted motorcoach tours suddenly get the urge to sing and play bingo?
  • Why is it that Shoji Tabuchi, a Japanese violinist, is one of Branson, Mo.'s, most popular performers?
  • How is it that salespeople in Middle Eastern bazaars speak every language on earth, yet most of us have trouble learning a second language?
  • Why do we always get the worst room in the hotel for our 50% industry fam rate?
  • Why do rental cars almost always have streaky windows but clean floors?
  • Why do the most attention-starved clients buy the cheapest trips?
  • Who thought to put wake-up alarms on TV sets at certain hotels, requiring you to fly across a darkened room to shut off that awful buzzer sound?
  • What was that white, featureless, boomerang-shaped thing that flew by my plane over New Mexico recently? A stealth aircraft? Maybe, but it was flying perpendicular to the ground, not parallel ...
  • Marc Mancini is a professor of travel at West Los Angeles College.

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