On-line coach

Thinking about taking a leap into cyberspace? Steve Wasserman, owner of $5 million Brighton Travel in Brighton, Mass., made the transition from life in a brick-and-mortar travel agency to the virtual world more successfully than most.

The former president of Carlson Travel Network Boston Marketing Group, Wasserman lends his 25-plus years' experience to a new Web site called VacationCoach.com, acting as a self-described "destination coach."

The site, which launched in early May, is designed to offer finely tuned travel advice that helps qualify clients according to their lifestyles.

The way it works is that site users build "passports" or databases that help the VacationCoach staff offer advice based on a detailed range of criteria.

Categories are as specific as families with children, families with infants and toddlers, couples and singles.

Once the clients have been through the process, Wasserman said they can bring the customized information to their travel agent.

He added that the company will refer clients to agents if they so desire and that preferred agents are simply those who have shown an interest in working with the site.

Agents do not pay a fee to be on the preferred-agents list, and consumers pay a nominal fee to join.

The introductory fee is $15, which is expected to climb to $25 at some unspecified future time.

As for agents worried about losing clients to the site, "the information we collect on our members is completely confidential," Wasserman said.

The site does not offer a booking engine, but this option will be in place at some point, he said, for those who prefer booking on the Internet.

Thus far, the site, which accepts no advertising, offers information about more than 130 vacation destinations in the U.S., compiled by research teams staffed by travel agents, among other researchers, Wasserman said.

"Our destinations are being rated by ... travel agents who have experience in that destination, and the agents then rate 64 characteristics of that destination on a scale of one to 10," he said.

The ratings are compared to destinations in the same area, he added, so that the member doesn't end up with apples and oranges.

"It's a long process to qualify a destination, since we are thorough and accurate, and travel agents are involved every step of the way," Wasserman said.

By Felicity Long

Thanks, Mom

According to Steve Wasserman, whose input helped create VacationCoach.com, consumers aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from Web sites such as his.

Travel agent members can find accurate, specific information for their clients, and client members can approach agents with much of their homework already done.

But although the site is taking up more and more of his time, Wasserman is not about to abandon his agency, which he owns with his 82-year-old mother, Belle Furash. "I've got some great employees who take up the slack that allows me to spend more time [at VacationCoach.com] than there," he said.

But even before joining the new company, Wasserman said his agency had started the process of changing in order to be more in tune with the marketplace.

"We were de-emphasizing airline sales in favor of more groups and cruises. We also got a Web site and started working with clients more via e-mail," he said.

Nowadays, Wasserman works in the agency two or three mornings a week to solve problems "that can't be solved any other way."

He noted that even old clients are starting to work with others in his office, reluctantly at first, but increasingly willingly as "they find how capable they are."

Fine-tuning your niche

Although the current trend toward specialization or niche marketing has merit, it is not a "one size fits all" theory.

Being an expert in a specific interest, such as golfing, can be lucrative. However, you must use common sense when choosing a specialty. Defining a market too narrowly could put you out of business. Too broad a demographic, such as seniors (defined by the American Association of Retired Persons as 52 years of age and up), and the commonality factor is removed.

You should have a database of clients that contains more than just names and addresses.

Lucy Hirleman.A broad analysis of your clients will give you an average of their ages, trip budgets and trip lengths. Depending on your database you can further define your clients in other ways such as by destination, interest and preferred travel product.

Let's say you discover that more than 50% of your clients are families. However, the ages of the children in these families range from infants to older teens. You can break down the children into three or four age groups and market accordingly. Speak to supplier sales reps about what their product has to offer for each age group. Then create lists of products that not only support each age group but also various destinations, budgets and trip lengths.

Becoming a specialist or developing a niche is expensive and time-consuming. Before making a commitment, analyze your current client base and ask yourself some questions. What is my predominant demographic? Is there a common thread of interest in my client base? Will marketing or location help me increase either the interest or demographic? Will referral or repeat business support this specialty?

You are the only one who can answer these questions, and only you can decide what is best for your business.

Lucy Hirleman, CTC, MCC, owns Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J.
Contact her at [email protected];
Fax: (973) 208-1204.

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