Preempting client concerns

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 Polynesian franc.

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" essentials.

Sometimes the explanations aren't so easy, as on those occasions when the client -- and consequently the agent -- is put in a tough spot.

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 information."

-- 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 and knowledgeable."

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 the same."

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.

Lucy Hirleman.He was 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."

He left.

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 been made.

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 this.

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.


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