Profile: Agency zooms into niche market

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ast-paced. Thrill a minute. Extreme competition. These words describe the high-octane world of travel agency life -- if your agency happens to book Nascar racing teams.

It's a niche that has its share of tensions, but it has been very lucrative for Brian McClenic and Brian Overton, who founded Piedmont Travel in Welcome, N.C., in 1999.

Actually, the story goes back a bit further. McClenic and Overton met about 13 years ago, through two women they were dating at the time. McClenic was working for US Airways' reservations department, and Overton was still in college. In 1991, Overton went to work for a local travel agency and became general manager.

"We had decided years before that we wanted to start our own business, but we just weren't sure where we wanted to go with it," said McClenic.

The idea for a racing niche first appeared in 1995, when Overton met someone who worked for a Nascar team. "We started booking them, and I started hanging out at the race tracks, basically just meeting people and trying to grow the business."

But splitting the commission with his agency's owner grew tiresome, he said. "That was an underlying motivation to grow our own business."

In 1999, that dream became reality. Today, 70% of Piedmont's business comes from booking racing teams, with nearly a dozen of them requiring the agency's services on a daily basis and more than twice that number on their overall client roster.

Roush Racing, which has claimed 24 national championships and titles, is the company's longest running client.

Racing team clients require a variety of services, just like any other. Piedmont arranges private jets, which the teams use for trips of 700 mile and shorter; for longer itineraries, the teams use scheduled carriers.

The company has worked to increase its presence in the marketplace and has even sponsored a race car.

"We weren't the primary sponsor," Overton said, "but it did give us some exposure. We were more concerned with putting a decal on the hauler -- that really helps us get visibility." The hauler, which is used to transport race vehicles, is seen on the highways by the general public, which is a market that Overton and McClenic would like to target more.

McClenic and Overton also would like to handle travel arrangements for the fans who travel to the races, but they say that would require additional labor and a strategy shift that is not feasible at this point.

The company already has expanded in some areas, though -- most notably, into car rentals.

Last year, the owners created a separate division called Triad Rent-a-Car, the result of an existing client's frustration with local rental companies.

Since last year, Triad's one-car fleet has grown to 11, and "those cars are never here," according to McClenic.

"We're trying to spread out and not put all our eggs in one basket."

Piedmont, which has three full-time agents and three independent contractors, has been a member of Vacation.com for about two years and joined ASTA last year.

Both McClenic and Overton continue to think of ways to expand and diversify.

But they have no plans to reduce their focus on racing clients.

"If it were not for that niche, we would have liquidated or sold probably two years ago," said Overton. "We're trying really hard to expand into other areas, but you don't bite the hand that feeds you."

The Perfect Itinerary
Tahiti: Pacific Paradise

By Mark Chesnut

atie Cadar, of the Travel Store in Santa Monica, Calif., fell in love with Tahiti the first time she visited in 1989. "I stayed almost three weeks," she recalls. Since then, she has returned seven times -- making her the ideal agent to plan the perfect visit to this Pacific paradise.

In terms of a minimum itinerary, "five days is too short," she says. "The shortest should be seven. The most common itinerary is three nights on Moorea and four nights on Bora Bora."

The most popular Tahiti itinerary is three nights on Moorea and four nights on Bora Bora, above.Moorea

A great way to get to know the island is by joining a half-day Jeep Safari. "They take you to the temples and the vanilla plantations. And you end at a pond with a waterfall where you can jump in. It's really charming and fun. You get to see a Tahiti you wouldn't see otherwise."

The Dolphin Experience, Cadar says, is "wonderful. There are various versions of it. You can do the shallow water version or you can actually snorkel with the dolphins. That's the better one. They also have a version for honeymoon couples in the morning. It's just the couple and the trainer; it's something you have to ask about."

Another worthwhile activity in Moorea is renting a car for one day. "It's a really nice experience to drive around the entire island -- it takes about an hour and a half," she says.

For meals, Cadar recommends a canoe breakfast for clients staying in overwater bungalows. "Especially for honeymoon couples, I also recommend they do dinner under the stars. Restaurants can set them up on the beach with a candlelight dinner; it can be done on any of the islands."

She also recommends Linareva, "a funky restaurant on a boat. They serve cocktails in a big coconut shell." But she always suggests that clients eat at their hotel when a Polynesian show is scheduled.

Bora Bora

Off the coast of Bora Bora, "shark feeding is a big thrill that clients can brag about when they go home," says Cadar. The Jeep Safari here, which costs more than on Moorea, is "more of a thrill ride. If [clients] have a bad back, be aware, because they really throw you around. You're bouncing over rocks, but you get the most incredible view."

Bicycling is a another popular activity in Bora Bora. "Hotels have bikes you can rent on the spot. What's also fun is to rent a scooter. I don't recommend it on Moorea because Tahitians drive very fast. Bora Bora has more curves [in its roads], so they drive slower."

For meals, Cadar suggests Bloody Mary's -- "it's this funky restaurant owned by Americans, with sand on the floor and tree trunks you sit on." As guests listen to live ukulele music, they pick their own fresh seafood from a big bed of ice.

For divers, "If it's a couple and they want romance and diving, I often do a combination of Bora Bora and Rangiroa, one of the largest atolls in the South Pacific." Diving here is fantastic, says Cadar.

Turen's Tips
It's time to take the gloves off about safety

ear Client: You have been mugged by reporters on cable news and editors in the nation's newsrooms. The media have tried to surgically remove your wanderlust, something that is at the core of who we are as Americans.

They have tried to eradicate your curiosity about the world around you. And worse, they have made your children afraid of unknown terrors.

Richard Turen.To do this, they have used the big lie. They have told us that it isn't safe to fly. They have told us that we have only two choices when dealing with our vacation time -- we can hide under the collective bed with the rest of the cable news-watchers, or we can drive to Big Bear State Park, just an hour-and-a-half away in the mini-van.

This Memorial Day weekend, with the Iraq War publicly over, we listened to the news and we stayed in the neighborhood. In fact, only 11% of us had the guts to get on an airplane to fly somewhere. The rest of us played it safe. We listened to the big lie and we drove.

And I nodded my tacit approval. I told you about homeland packages, and I gave you brochures that flew the flag. But I never told you about the big lie.

So now, the truth. I worry, as Jack Nicholson said in the movie "A Few Good Men," that "you can't handle the truth," but here goes.

The two most dangerous places you can be on your vacation are the highway and your home. Your chance of dying in a terrorist attack is, according to research published in the February issue of Conde Nast Traveler, one in 9,270,000. Your chance of dying in an airline accident is one in 8,450,000.

Compare that with the chance of dying in a car accident -- one in 18,800. Your chance of dying by gunshot wound in the U.S. is one in 9,450.

But those who perpetuate the big lie won't take on the auto industry or the gun lobby. With all those car commercials on TV, do you really expect the proponents of the big lie to tell you that packing the kids in the van and driving somewhere is one of the most dangerous things you do?

By the way, dear client, this note is written from a safe harbor. I'm in a 777 flying home from Paris. If you really want to be safe, I hope you will consider flying somewhere. I really feel safe up here but, in all honesty, I'm dreading the drive home from the airport.

Industry consultant Richard Turen owns the vacation planning firm Churchill and Turen, Ltd., based in Naperville, Ill. A 23-year industry veteran, he has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's "Best Agents" list since the list began in 2000. Turen is at work on his third book, a game plan for delivering extraordinary service in a retail environment. Contact him at [email protected].

Hand in Hand
Small, relaxed Nevis fam wows agent

oo often, fam trips are predictable: whirlwind site inspections, rushed tours, all-too-brief discussions with suppliers.

But Belinda Crews, manager of Century Travel in Atlanta, found a different experience when she participated in a fam trip sponsored by the Nevis Tourism Authority.

"Over the 20-some trips I've taken, this was one of the best by far."

Poolside at the Four Seasons Resort, Nevis.What made it stand out? For starters, there was the small size of the group. Rather than inviting dozens of agents from around the country, the trip focused on agents from the Atlanta area (agents from other regions are invited separately).

The trip was even more productive because of its own mini-trade show, where attendees could meet one-on-one with hoteliers and tour operators.

The trade show was held one morning in a conference room at the Four Seasons, where agents stayed.

Attending the trade show before the afternoon's hotel inspections also helped, said Crews. "Then when you're touring the property, you can pay more attention to it rather than listening to a sales pitch."

The result of this highly tailored attention? Crews is selling more of the destination -- which is especially nice since Nevis is a perfect destination for Century Travel, a member of the upscale consortium Virtuoso.

She had already sent clients to the Four Seasons but now has a better handle on other properties and attractions, too. "The other properties that were not on the beach -- Montpelier Plantation Inn and Mount Nevis -- were wonderful."

Crews suggests that clients divide their time between two properties during their visit, so they get the best of a beach and a hillside vacation.

Even before this fam trip, Crews found the Nevis Tourism Authority very responsive. "If you need something, they're always available."

Contact the Nevis Tourism Authority at (866) 55 NEVIS or visit www.nevisisland.com.

"Hand in Hand" highlights productive interactions between suppliers and agents. To share your experiences, contact [email protected].

5 THINGS
Five things agency owners should do before going on vacation

1. Make sure the manager knows what to do in case of a serious crisis, such as a power outage or robbery. Provide a list of emergency phone numbers the manager might need quickly.

2. To protect against the power plays that often emerge when the boss is away, hold a staff meeting and state clearly who's in charge while you're gone. Say that you know that the whole team will "pull together" to make sure all goes smoothly.

3. With the manager, review the status of all trips currently in progress with VIP customers, noting the timelines you anticipate for completion and any follow-ups that have been promised. If you have clients who are accustomed to dealing only with you, let them know you'll be out of the office and which agent you've assigned to assist them in your absence.

4. Sit down with the manager and review any basic procedures that might come back to haunt you after you return from vacation. For example, if bank deposits need to be made, be sure there are ample deposit slips available. And make certain the manager knows about matters he or she doesn't usually handle. For instance, explain that the cleaning crew normally comes in before business hours on Tuesdays -- you don't want the manager reporting them to the police!

5. Finally, though you're hoping to have an uninterrupted vacation, leave contact numbers where you can be reached. Tell your manager the kind of situations when you definitely want to be contacted -- and those situations you feel comfortable leaving to those in charge in your absence.

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