Although customers have become much more worldly about the travel
industry in recent times -- the majority of them may be able to
explain code shares in 25 words or less -- there are still times
when agents have to clarify or explain things.
"We're very destination oriented," said Richard Bondurant,
president of New Millennium Travel in Atlanta. "We just serve
French Polynesia. For the clients booking with us, it's usually a
specific destination they've sought out, and they've typically done
quite a bit of research. They're still confused about basic things,
like climate or currency."
Bondurant said that most people assume that since French
Polynesia is governed by France, the region's currency is the
French franc. Not so. The currency of choice is the Pacific
Also, Bondurant said customers frequently express concern about
possible hurricanes in French Polynesia and wonder what is the best
time to avoid hurricane season.
Conveniently for Bondurant, French Polynesia doesn't have a set
season for storms. "It does have them," said Bondurant, "but not
five a year."
Bondurant's firm takes a preemptive stance toward customer
concerns. To dispel any confusion or fears about such matters as
currency or climate, New Millennium sends clients detailed
information sheets with all the "know-before-you-go"
Sometimes the explanations aren't so easy, as on those occasions
when the client -- and consequently the agent -- is put in a tough
Darby Trovato, owner of Darby's Travel in Houston, said
customers are generally knowledgeable, but sometimes have trouble
understanding some of the machinations of the industry.
"The dropping of Saturday flights is a hard thing to explain to
someone," said Trovato.
She recounted a story of a client who was traveling from Las
Vegas to Tulsa, Okla., with a connection through Houston
Intercontinental. The customer's airline changed the flight
schedule out of Houston, which meant the customer's 5:30 p.m.
flight would be pushed back to 8 p.m.
Trovato explained the situation to the customer, and provided
two choices: Leave Las Vegas early or, because she had a pass
available, spend four hours in a first class lounge at
Intercontinental. The customer, of course, chose to stay in Vegas
and dally in the Houston lounge.
"The client understood that it wasn't my fault, and there's just
not much choice," said Trovato. "I think the whole key is to not
hide anything from clients. They can deal with it if they have the
-- Grant Flowers
Keeping up with savvy consumers
Even though clients sometimes can raise eyebrows with oddball
questions, the traveling public has become much smarter about the
travel industry in recent years.
Virginia Pieplow, travel consultant at Gayle Gillies Travel in
Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., generally has little trouble with her
clients. The agency is a member of Virtuoso, and consequently most
of their customers are, in Pieplow's words, "savvy, very up-to-date
Still, there are some points on which she sometimes has to clear
things up. Occasionally, a customer will comment on a lower fare
seen in the newspaper, and Pieplow tells him or her to check the
fine print. That's when the client notices that the paper was
giving a one-way fare.
Norman Nevers, owner-manager of Gulliver's Travels in Portland,
Ore., said customers have become much more educated about travel
and travel products during his 17 years in the business.
"Most people call and know exactly what they want, and we just
book it for them," said Nevers. "The last five years or so, they've
become more knowledgeable, but whether because of the Internet or
publications, I'm not sure. They seem to know more and don't seem
to have quite the confusion they used to have."
Nevers said his agency rarely gets questions that reflect
outright customer confusion. One mainstay, however, is still the
question about how airlines determine their fares.
"All you can say is 'Who knows?' That's what the airlines are
charging," said Nevers.
Business you don't need
There is a saying, "the more things change, the more they stay
It keeps going around and around in my head like a broken record
(if you don't know what a record is, ask your mother).
Years ago, an advertising salesman came into my office. He's
probably still shaking his head when he thinks of me. He wanted me
to advertise a "giveaway" or a discount on the back of cash
register tapes at local supermarkets. I told him there is nothing
to "give away" and I do not discount.
persistent and insisted that if I bought something cheap to give
away, I would get thousands of phone calls if I advertised with
him. I just stared at him and finally asked, "Why would I want
thousands of people to call me?"
He was dumbfounded. "You don't want phone calls?" he asked.
"Of course, I want phone calls, you fool, but if I wanted
thousands of phone calls, I'd advertise free travel."
The Internet has brought us a new phenomenon that reminds me of
the salesman and his supermarket promotion. There are at least four
companies that I know of, and except for a few minor twists, all
have the same premise.
A consumer posts a request for the vacation, and registered
agents go head-to-head making offers.
Some of these companies charge you up front for what they call
"qualified leads," and others only charge you once the sale has
The rates vary from $15 for a "qualified lead" (no guarantee of
sale) up to 2.5% of the trip value.
If you crunch the numbers, you'll discover that unless your net
profit is more than 4% (unlikely), you're going to take a bath on
Here is my take on life in a small agency: There is business you
can afford to turn down; there is business you shouldn't be looking
for, and you won't make up losses with volume.
In other words, if you won't waste time with local shoppers, why
go looking for them on a national level?
If there is anyone out there who has made a profit on one of
these sites, I'd love to hear from you.
Lucy Hirleman, CTC, MCC, owns Berkshire Travel in
Newfoundland, N.J. Contact her at [email protected]; fax: (973) 208-1204.