Narrow focus, high expertise

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Arthur Mehmel will tell you that he knows more about the Caribbean than virtually anyone on earth -- at least any travel agent. His knowledge of the region, in fact, is part and parcel of his business plan.

TourScan Caribbean Vacations, which Mehmel founded in 1987, hung its hat on the concept of niche travel long before specialization was a popular method of doing business.

TourScan, based in Darien, Conn., offers one-stop, value-oriented shopping for customers looking for a vacation in the Caribbean, Bahamas and Bermuda.

Mehmel, a former vice president of marketing in American Express card-expansion division, believes that knowledge is power -- and to gain knowledge one must narrow ones focus in order to stay a step ahead of the client.

I was never impressed with the expertise of the agents that I dealt with, he said. And I always loved travel. My wife and I knew more about travel than many agents did.

Furthermore, Mehmel was painfully aware of price discrepancies from his own travel experiences. Years ago, a couple on the same flight with Mehmel, who were coincidentally staying at the same hotel, had paid about half of what he paid for accommodations.

And I thought I was so smart calling the airline and the hotel directly myself, he said.

Getting technical

In the late 1980s, before personal computers were ubiquitous in the business world, Mehmel knew technology would play a key role in his success. He consolidated all destination offerings for customers -- hence the name TourScan -- with the use of personal computers.

It always seemed to me there would be vastly different prices for essentially the same vacation, he said. It seemed to me I could rationalize shopping by computerizing the offerings of all the operators.

Mehmel said he can virtually guarantee that his clients wont find themselves in a similar situation. To keep current and competitive, TourScan continually updates its inventory, which includes some 2,000 properties on 56 islands plus hotel packages, tour operator packages and flight information.

For the consumer, finding the same information would entail gathering and comparing 300 brochures, flyers, newspapers and advertisements, Mehmel said. People tell us weve saved them $400 to $800.

That doesnt mean Mehmel and his staff of three agents sell only budget travel. The agency also provides upscale travelers with the best prices at the Caribbeans toniest resorts.

When upscale travelers are spending money, they want first-hand information on the differences between the Turk & Caicos Windmills Plantation, Meridian Club and Parrot Cay, said Mehmel. And only an expert would know those differences.

TourScan discourages walk-in business primarily because Mehmel believes phone conversations are more efficient. TourScan agents are trained on how to qualify callers, Mehmel said. They find out whether the callers want an all-inclusive vacation, their ideas on what an ideal vacation encompasses, their hobbies and where or whether theyve traveled before.

The company advertises in such publications as the New York Times and Caribbean Travel & Life. Over the years, TourScan has received mountains of free publicity through recommendations in a range of publications, most notably guidebooks.

Weve had substantial write-ups in Frommers, Fodors and Caribbean for Dummies, said Mehmel.

Three-year recovery

Like all travel companies, TourScan was hit hard by 9/11. We grew like a rocket right up to 9/11. Although business has not reached the companys pre-9/11 levels, Mehmel said business has been inching its way back up to satisfactory levels.

All things considered, Mehmel is confident that his business model is the right one for the future. Its still true that travelers are going to demand expertise from their travel agents and theyre going to want their agents to be more knowledgeable about destinations than ever before.

He chose the Caribbean because of its wide appeal. A Caribbean vacation can be whatever clients want it to be, he said, adding that the beautiful weather and beaches are always a strong selling point.

Nonetheless, Mehmel said he took quite a bit of heat from his travel agent when he opened TourScans doors and announced his decision to specialize.

Theyd ask, What are you going to do when people ask for Florida? I told them I would tell customers, I only sell the Caribbean, and thats what Ive done. And it works.

To contact Agent Life reporter Claudette Covey, send e-mail [email protected].

The Trip Challenge

Around the world on a trust fund

Take a couple in their early 30s, a trust fund and an empty nest. Those elements translated into an FIT lasting more than six months.

They decided before their lives got too involved theyd take this whirlwind trip, said Monika Dysart, who was responsible for arranging each aspect of the vacation.

Dysart, who is the manager of the Midwest division of Sixth Star Travel in St. Louis, said she began working on travel arrangements nearly a year before the couple departed as well as throughout the duration of the vacation.

The thing that I realized shortly after I started working on it was that it wasnt like most trips where once the clients are gone, you just wait until theyre back, said Dysart. There was constant follow-up with every piece of their trip. It was an ongoing vacation with a lot of ongoing arrangements -- like coordinating travel documents and visas and sending them to different locations.

Monika Dysart of Sixth Star Travel created a six-month FIT for a couple in their early 30s. One of the highlights was a safari in Africa. The clients traveled to Europe, the Middle East, Africa (for a safari), Indonesia and India, combining land trips with cruises, including two Star Clipper itineraries and a cruise aboard a Silversea ship. All air transportation was first or business class.

The couple, which started out their marathon sojourn in January, ended the trip in England to visit friends and attend the Wimbledon tennis tournament in late June and July.

Designing a highly specialized, extremely long trip for ultra-discerning clients is not for the faint of heart. It was, however, right up Dysarts alley.

I always enjoy a challenge, she said, and I really like designing FITs. I dont like cookie-cutter travel. My forte is taking a prepackaged vacation or cruise and customizing it to that individuals needs.

The Trip Challenge highlights a travel agents most difficult itinerary. To send an example of a difficult itinerary you put together, e-mail Covey at [email protected].

Hand in Hand

A cruise promotion thats oh so sweet

Peter Friedman has orchestrated his share of cruise events. The luxury-travel counselor at Unique Travel in Delray Beach, Fla., has planned myriad cruise nights and cruise luncheons both onboard and on land.

But his favorite types of events are dessert parties.

And, with a little help from suppliers, in this case Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, Friedman and the agency have reaped rewards from hosting this type of affair.

In particular, Friedman pointed to Phil Devillier, director of sales for southeastern Florida at Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, as playing an instrumental role in making the events a success.

Phil arranges a lot of consumer events for Unique Travel, he said The line and Phil are both extremely proactive.

Unique Travel and Radisson Seven Seas Cruises find that dessert parties produce a lot of business. Above, Radissons Seven Seas Voyager.One such Radisson-Unique Travel dessert event drew about 100 people, 4% of whom immediately booked a 14-day promotion that was announced at the function, Friedman said. Another 30% to 40% of the attendees ultimately became Radisson clients.

I find dessert events more successful than the lunches, said Friedman. People at lunches are there for several hours and by the time the presentation takes place, theyre tired. With a dessert event, people can have a drink and dessert and the whole thing is over in an hour.

For his part, Devillier believes the dessert parties draw a particular clientele -- professional people who are unavailable for daytime events -- who are an excellent target for Radissons cruises.

Dessert parties are something that Ive done since I started selling the luxury side of the business, he said. You have face time with the consumer in a relaxed venue. You can really share the nice features of the product, and its a soft sell.

His relationship with Friedman and Unique Travel, Devillier said, has grown over the last 12 years.

As long as theyve been around Ive been around. I go into their office with open arms and am greeted with open arms, he said.

Turens Tips

Some advice for the new year

Well its that challenging time of year again when those of us who write about travel try to offer some suggestions for change in the new year.

Its a lovely time of the year -- a time of hope and good cheer. So in that spirit, my New Years memos:

Memo to American Airlines:

Are you out to win the Dumb and Dumber award? Actually, the flying public sort of liked your extra-legroom concept. Why are you phasing it out? You should try walking to the back of the aircraft and visiting your clients.

Memo to Jack Williams at Royal Caribbean:

Why not just take a large U.S. coastal city and name it XXXX of the Seas? No one will notice that it doesnt float, and think of the shore excursions you could offer.

Memo to tourist boards:

Heres a wild idea. Why dont you call the people who send other people to your country and ask them if they need any promotional material?

Memo to Peter Greenberg:

OK, we get it. TV remote controls in hotel rooms have to be disinfected by EPA teams wearing protective clothing and hotel blankets are washed during every Democratic sweep of Congress.

Memo to suppliers:

How about offering fam trips to real travel professionals in 2005? Do the friends, accountants, hangers-on and hair stylists really need to get agent rates? How about invitations coming directly from your business managers with a real business reason for the trip? Now theres a wild concept.

Memo to cruise line executives:

Wouldnt 2005 be a great time to confirm exactly how you arrive at your noncommissionable fees? We want to know. The IRS wants to know.

Memo to home-based agents:

Stop whining. Of course, district sales managers are not going to visit you in your kitchen.  This is a business. While many of you excel, most of you dont. Low production is the problem, and whining doesnt solve it.

Memo to Singapore:

What will it take to get you to show the rest of us how to run an airline and an airport? This would be a good year for you to publish a how to manual.

Memo to five-star hotels:

Clients will pay more for a better room with better service in a better hotel. But they are outraged when their only dining options are white-tablecloth rooms that spell rip-off. Please fix this immediately.

Memo to five-star hotels:

Clients will pay more for a better room with better service in a better hotel. But they are outraged when their only dining options are white-tablecloth rooms that spell rip-off. Please fix this immediately.

Memo to all cruise lines, airlines and hotels and resorts:

This is the year to take the pledge. Repeat after me, I will not use the word luxury or luxurious unless I first define what I mean. There is nothing luxurious about a Ramada Inn in Peoria.

Industry consultant Richard Turen owns vacation-planning firm Churchill and Turen in Naperville, Ill. A 23-year industry veteran, he has been named to Conde Nast Travelers Best Agents list since the list began in 2000.

5 Things

Creating newsletters to distribute to customers

1. Choose a consistent format. Newsletters come in all shapes and sizes, from four-color, multipage, tabloid size to one-color, one-page, standard size, said Ralph Grizzle, publisher of Asheville, N.C.-based Cruise Observer, a consumer cruise newsletter that is customized and distributed for cruise sellers. Part of your decision on format will be based on how many you are printing. If youre printing several thousand, then four-color, tabloid-size isnt cost-prohibitive, but if your numbers arent in the thousands, one or two colors on standard paper will be the most cost-effective.

2. Choose a consistent frequency. For most consumers, a newsletter in the mailbox four times annually is enough, Grizzle said. You want a distribution frequency that creates not only awareness but anticipation. If the consumer is looking forward to receiving your newsletter, you can be assured that the response will be much stronger than from a random mailing.

3. Create content, not a catalogue. Tone down your sales pitch and give consumers a resource they can use to make informed vacation purchases, Grizzle said. Theyll view your newsletter as a service rather than a flyer that constantly bombards them to purchase.

4. Invest in hardware and software. Apple is the standard in desktop design. The iMac, even beefed up with additional memory, costs less than $2,000. Add a $99 scanner and a color laser printer (prices have dropped to less than $500), and youre pretty much good to go, Grizzle said. But theres one additional investment: page-layout software like Adobe Indesign or QuarkXpress, which are pricey but provide tools to create professional design.

 

5. Read, revise, edit and proof. Dont rely totally on your computers spell check, said Grizzle. When in doubt, pick up the dictionary. And be sure to have more than one set of eyes to check pricing and contact information. The only thing worse than a client reaching you with an erroneous listed price is a client not being able to reach you at all because contact information was not listed or was listed incorrectly.

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