Publicity perks and perils

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It's not every agent who gets profiled in a front-page piece in the New York Times' Sunday Styles section headlined "Reservationist to the Stars." But for Manhattan-based Bill Fischer, the story (which appeared in the Sept. 20 edition) was a mixed blessing.

Bill Fisher in the Times The article called him a "travel agent extraordinary, who specializes in getting people into sold-out hotels, onto overbooked flights and into restaurants with unlisted phone numbers" and gave many examples of his blue-chip client list. But the piece also charged that Fischer overpays to get premium service from hotels and restaurants and passes the cost on to clients, quoting two anonymous clients (one actually an ex-client) who felt gouged by high service fees.

Fischer, owner of Fischer Travel, got his chance to rebut these charges in the piece, noting that he "absolutely [does] not" grease palms unduly to get service and that his clients can well afford charges that include an initial $10,000 fee. "It's not about the money. It's about getting what [the clients] need," he told Travel Weekly.

And what is probably the most damning quote in the piece -- "They are so rich, what's 10 or 20 thousand to them?" -- was taken out of context, Fisher said. Those sums were his estimate of what a client had to pay to charter a plane at the last minute to make a business meeting, and he was noting that time was more important than money to the client just then.

Though Fischer was "unhappy" after he'd read the article, most of the responses from clients and friends have been positive, he said. And though having clients complain that they're being overcharged is perhaps every agent's worst nightmare, he's not really worried. And he shouldn't be, noted former industry consultant (now Travelsavers senior vice president) John Dalton. "If an agency can give extraordinary service to differ from its competitors, go ahead and charge a fee," Dalton said.

Still, Dalton agreed that charging $1,500 to have a client's daughter receive the client's frequent flyer miles -- another charge in the article -- was "out of bounds. He charges for premium services, but that's not a premium service."

Up, up and away

Seabourn suiteHow can agents get clients to buy an expensive vacation when so many other products are competing for a consumer's discretionary dollars? Linda Allen, an independent agent located in Harrison, Ark., does it by helping "to give clients the psychological permission to make the decision" and focusing on the following themes:

  • Client dreams. "What have you always dreamed of doing?" is a good question to start with, she noted. "There is no time like the present to plan on fulfilling dreams" is another key point.
  • Memories. Allen sells the fact that "this trip will not only be one of the best vacations imaginable; it will provide you the type of memories that will last you a lifetime. You will never be able to think about this wonderful experience without feeling a warm glow."
  • These techniques "allow the client to justify an expenditure than could have been used for something else," she said. "Since most of my clients are educated boomers, all they really need to know is why they need to do it now rather than later."

    She added, "I use this same type of logic to sell up. I sell a great many balcony cabins and suites to first-time cruisers. I have never had clients come back and say they wish they had bought a cheaper cabin. I have had them come back and say they wish they had bought a more expensive cabin and that the extra cost would have been well worth it."

    Pay for play?

    Is commission-only pay the wave of the future? Industry experts say that agents should be compensated when they produce. When agent pay is actually geared to product sales, they say, everybody wins -- both front-line agents and agency owners.

    At Travel Weekly, we're trying to get a feel for how the typical agency handles the issue of compensation. Agency owners, how do you pay your agents? Salary only? Salary plus commission? Commission only?

    We're surveying agents in this week's InstaPoll on Crossroads. If you haven't yet, please go to the home page and answer the poll.

    We're also looking for case histories from agency owners who fit into each of the three pay categories, as well as stories from front-line agents. Agency owners might answer the following questions:

    1. Has moving to a commission-based pay structure increased agency profits? By how much?
    2. If your agency was previously on salary, how did you ease your agents into the new system?
    3. If your agency pays commissions, what kind of formula do you use for determining what commissions are?
    4. If you have a commission-only agency, how do you handle the potential problem of competition among agents?
    5. And if you're still paying your agents salary only, we'd like to know, too.

    Front-line agents, we'd like to know:

    1. Everybody says that agents on commission-based systems should make more money. Is this really true?
    2. If you are making more money, how much has your pay gone up?
    3. If you're on a commission-only system, are you feeling more competitive with your fellow agents?

    E-mail answers to Travel Weekly's Agent Life editor, Phyllis Fine, at [email protected]; fax (201) 319-1947; or go to the Agent Issues Forum on Crossroads and post a response there. Thanks!

    Funny fees

    Ever feel like a bartender counseling the weary, or a psychiatrist who's not getting paid by the hour? You're not alone.

    Steve Chase, an agent at Orange Belt Travel in Bartow, Fla., came up with the following schedule of service fees for demanding clients, as a joke to be shared with the industry only:

  • Nervous Nellie comfort fee: $10.
  • Post-trip belly-aching fee: $10.
  • Standard P.I.N. (pain in the neck) surcharge: $10.
  • Lost baggage fuss fee: $10.
  • Weather grumble fee: $10.
  • Seat selection ad nauseum fee: $25.
  • Client emotional venting fee: $25.
  • Psychiatric referral fee (for more advanced emotional venting): $25.
  • The agency does have real fees, said manager Nancy Pennington. "I believe that agents do a lot more than ticket process," she said.

    Shopping for a kennel

    Want to help clients who are nervous about having to board Fifi while traveling? According to Best Friends Pet Resorts, a Norwalk, Conn.-based group of upscale kennels throughout the U.S., clients should consider the following when shopping for a kennel:

  • Certification. Is the kennel a member of the American Boarding Kennel Association (ABKA) and the American Grooming Shop Association (AGSA)?
  • Odor. Clients can use their noses as a tip-off to sanitary conditions. They should also ask to inspect living quarters for overall cleanliness and avoid kennels that disallow complete inspections.
  • Safety. Ask about precautions against "pet escapes."
  • Food: Ask if feeding times are flexible. Can clients provide their pets' own food?
  • Cages: Don't board dogs where they will be caged. Cat cages should be roomy.
  • Exercise. Most pets need to be walked and played with regularly. Are such services offered?
  • Net News

  • Paradise Vacations Online. This destination information site, operated by San Diego-based Sandesa Inc., might give your beach-bound clients a feel for where they would like to go in the Caribbean, Hawaii, the Bahamas or Mexico. Check out: www.paradise-vacations.com
  • Bill McFarlane & Assoc. This Mill Valley, Calif.-based technology and management consulting firm provides a nice example of using the Web as an on-line business card and brochure of its services. Bill McFarlane is, among other things, a former president of Aqua Software in Santa Ana, Calif., and former vice president and general manager of Galileo North America. Go to www.billmcfarlane.com
  • Compiled by Jennifer Dorsey. E-mail suggestions to [email protected].

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