Remedial PR Training


Erma Bridges is now more media-savvy than most. The owner of Affordable Travel in Benton, Ark., recently took ASTA's one-day public relations crash course and found a definite improvement in her PR skills.

Although she'd once worked as a news reporter at a radio station, she found that she needed help when the tables were turned and she was answering questions instead of asking them. "They videotaped us in the morning and again in the evening. We could see how everybody improved. In the 'before' tape, I looked as if I was mad at the world. When they turn that camera on, you have a tendency to get tight and tense." Bridges not only learned to loosen up on camera but to become "much more aware of what the reporter is really asking me and to think carefully before answering."

Bridges received the training when she joined ASTA's 150-member communications council. Through ASTA's PR department, council members are referred to print and broadcast journalists who want a local agent's point of view on travel issues. But Bridges' first post-course appearance actually happened by chance. A Little Rock television station was calling travel agents listed in the phone book to comment on how the fires in Mexico were affecting tourism. It was a holiday weekend, and Bridges was one of the few agents around. Bridges found immediate benefits to having her agency identified on camera. "The next week the phones never quit ringing," she said. She even picked up some new clients who said, "I saw you on TV, and I'd like to use your agency."

"Publicity is wonderful," she noted. "How much would a 30-second ad on a statewide TV station cost? I got all that exposure for free."

PR Tips

Here are some of the lessons that Bridges learned from ASTA's course on dealing successfully with the media:

  • Figure out three main points you want to make in your interview. Have them on the tip of your tongue.
  • Strive to talk in sound bites -- good colorful quotes, using easy-to-understand analogies and personal experiences if possible.
  • If you're going to be on television, pay attention to how you look as well as sound. Don't slouch. Smile more often than you do normally because TV tends to pull your expression down.
  • Read the newspaper the morning of your interview to make sure you're up on current travel events -- and are not thrown off guard by a reporter's question on "the horrible situation in Jamaica," for example.
  • Give yourself enough time to clarify the question if you're not sure what the reporter's really asking you.
  • Allow enough time to think your answer through. For example, in the course of a TV interview on the recent fires in Mexico, Bridges had to remind herself that "they're not asking me when the fires are going to be put out, they're asking me how the fires are affecting the people I'm putting on the plane and sending to Mexico."
  • * * *

    Believe It or Not

    Yes, it's still possible to make a profit while selling air, said Susan Tanzman, owner of Los Angeles-based Martin's Travel and Tours. She provided these tips at a recent ASTA seminar:

  • Develop preferred relationships with secondary carriers in a market. Tanzman worked to move market share to an airline with minimal amount of lift out of Los Angeles. She's now the largest seller of this carrier in her area. Working with a secondary airline -- preferably one that does international as well as domestic tickets -- can lead to commissions ranging from 16% to 40%, she said. For Tanzman, the benefits also included "special deals and favors for our clients," she noted. "And they took our entire staff to Hawaii for a fam."
  • Buy airline tickets from other sources -- preferably, your preferred-supplier tour operators. This benefits clients as well as your agency because the tour operator packages will often include lower fares as well as extras such as cars and hotels.
  • Develop a base of reliable consolidators to use for international and even domestic air whenever possible. To minimize booking time on the phone, check out consolidators that have software systems that will allow you to book through the computer.
  • Tell your CRS vendor you'll be booking a good percentage (for Tanzman, it's 10%) of your business with consolidators and you'll have to renegotiate your segment level down.
  • Research your preferred major carrier. "Find out what the criteria are for each of the Big Three because they are not the same," she said. "I was giving one carrier close to 40% of the business in my agency and was getting zilch. I gave another carrier 20% and I started getting an override."
  • Charge service fees.
  • * * *

    Perks for Employees

    Q: How can I keep good agents on staff without giving them big raises?

    P. Jason King says: There are a number of low-cost benefits you can provide to your employees that won't bankrupt you. For example:

  • Start a modest version of a tuition refund program, paying a percentage of the actual cost of industry education programs such as the Institute of Certified Travel Agents' certified travel counselor (CTC) program. You'll get the benefit of well-trained employees who will be grateful for your help.
  • Offer new employees a small bonus based on their six-month anniversary of employment.
  • A 401(K) plan is next to impossible for a small company, but how about developing a modest profit-sharing plan? Come up with an amount of money at year's end that you can afford to contribute to this new program, prorating it to each employee according to how long each has been with the company. The employees can contribute and you will either match the contributions or match a percentage of what they're putting in. You also can put contributions into a joint savings account for each employee, under both your names. At the end of a certain number of years, the passbook becomes the employee's alone.
  • P. Jason King is founder and president of New York-based Yours in Travel Personnel Agency Inc. If you have questions for him, please send e-mail to [email protected].

    * * *

    A New Consciousness

    Former ASTA president Jeanne Epping had "talked the talk" about travel for the handicapped, but now she has to "walk the walk," so to speak. Epping, who owns Santa Cruz (Calif.) Travel, has been in a wheelchair since November, when she broke her leg in a fall. "I thought I was very attuned to the difficulties of the disabled, but I didn't know how much planning and energy it takes to travel from point A to point B when you're in a wheelchair," she said.

    In the past few months, Epping has been carried on board cruise ships by longshoremen and wheeled herself up ramps built for access to stages. Of all airlines, she rates American tops for its staff and facilities devoted to the wheelchair-bound. She's also found her new consciousness helpful in selling more travel to this market.

    * * *

    Casual to a T

    Agents at Houston-based Carlson Wagonlit/Utopia Travel have a new take on "casual Fridays." They've started wearing supplier logo T-shirts when it's TGIF time, alternating among six companies. "We thought T-shirts were a little too casual for casual Fridays--except if we all wear them like uniforms," said owner Mike Weingart. The T-shirts--worn with khaki pants, shorts or skirts--have definitely attracted the attention of tenants of the office building where the agency is located. "We're spreading the word of travel at a low cost," said Weingart. "Our only concern is, most T-shirts come in large or extra large, and we're all smalls and mediums."


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