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,"
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
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
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
But they have no plans to reduce their focus on racing
"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
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."
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
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
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
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
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,
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
They have tried to eradicate your curiosity about the world
around you. And worse, they have made your children afraid of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Contact the Nevis Tourism Authority at (866) 55 NEVIS or visit
"Hand in Hand" highlights productive interactions between
suppliers and agents. To share your experiences, contact [email protected].
Five things agency owners should do before going on
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
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.