Retailer's risk pays large reward

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ad Atlas Travel International President Elaine Osgood been overly concerned about taking risks 18 years ago, she would not be at the helm of a $65 million agency with 47 employees and two locations.

Osgood opened what was then called Uniglobe Atlas Travel in Milford, Mass., with little else than an enduring commitment to offer the best in customer service. Prior to opening the agency, she had spent eight years in the social-services field working with child-abuse victims.

"I got a strong nudge from my husband to switch careers," Osgood said. "I would come home every night and talk about how my day went -- which was a little more than he could handle."

Like many who have spent years in a given career, Osgood wasn't sure how she was going to reinvent her professional life. After much soul searching, she began investigating the prospect of operating a franchise and researched a host of options -- from video stores to a Jiffy Lube.

Then she saw a newspaper ad that changed everything. It promoted Uniglobe Travel franchises. She and her husband refinanced their house to fund the Uniglobe down payment.

"I decided to take the risk," she said. "And I was going to figure out a way to make it work."

That first year, Osgood, with just one employee, concentrated on learning how to run a business.

"I went out on the street knocking on doors and telling corporations and customers why they should do business with us," she said. "It was a challenge. Basically, I told them I was going to make sure they were taken care of. All I had to offer was my integrity."

She relied on Uniglobe's programs and services to help her build the travel agency. "Uniglobe was strongly encouraging new franchisees to build a strong corporate base of business," Osgood said, adding that she followed that strategy "hook, line and sinker."

Within 10 years, Uniglobe Atlas Travel was the No. 1 Uniglobe franchise in the U.S. However, "The return on the investment just wasn't there anymore," Osgood said. "The program was no longer providing what I needed in my business development."

So in 1997, Osgood struck out on her own as Atlas Travel International and signed on with WorldTravel BTI.

"I wanted to be part of an organization that would provide me with an international network," she said. The agency now is WorldTravel BTI's exclusive Northeast regional affiliate.

In the last several years, Atlas Travel has expanded in other ways. In 2000, the company launched a travel store that sells clothing and travel accessories in a boutique attached to its Lexington, Mass., location. In 2002, it acquired Global Odysseys, which customizes meetings and incentives programs for companies of all sizes. Both businesses, Osgood said, are thriving.

For its part, business from Global Odysseys is one of the company's strongest growth areas. Osgood said that meetings and incentives business began coming back with a vengeance in fourth-quarter 2003 and has shown no signs of diminishing.

"The first quarter of this year has been very strong," she said.

Six percent of Atlas' business comes from meetings and incentives. Corporate business accounts for 82% and vacation sales 12%. The agency's vacation agents, Osgood said, are all specialists in the areas they sell and have either visited those regions extensively or lived in them.

"We have very savvy travelers," she said. "They need to deal with professionals who know more then they do."

Osgood has never been one to rest on her laurels when it comes to any element of her business. "Everybody talks about service and bending over backwards for the customer," she said. "We act on it."

For instance, Atlas recently developed a number of products that cater to corporate customers. Although many corporate agencies offer clients electronic itinerary options that break down expenses, Atlas also is able to provide details on ticket exchanges.

"When clients have unused tickets and want to buy new ones, they can't always find the paper trail," said Osgood. At Atlas, that paper trail is available with the click of a mouse. Atlas also provides clients with an electronic link for airport check-in that enables them to print their own boarding passes.

If clients have questions about an itinerary, they simply click on a "Push to Talk" button, which automatically connects -- by phone -- to the agent who made the booking.

"You don't have to remember the actual agent," said Osgood. "Anytime you want to talk to the agent, just click on the button." Your phone rings and the connection is instant.

Last year, Atlas posted a 20% increase in profits and expects to exceed that number this year. No one is more astounded -- and delighted -- than Osgood herself.

"I'm just amazed," she said. "And I'm having a blast."

The Perfect Itinerary
Taking the Garden Route in South Africa

heryl Chegwidden, a travel consultant and Africa specialist at Betty MacLean Travel in Naples, Fla., designed a five-day South Africa itinerary that explores the Garden Route along the country's forested coast. This itinerary is a portion of a 14-night vacation.

"The best way to see the Garden Route is to drive the countryside on your own," Chegwidden said, adding that travelers uncomfortable with driving on the left-hand side of the road should opt for an English-speaking driver/guide or accompany a tour group.

Clients traveling South Africa's Garden Route will begin their journey from Cape Town.DAY 1

Clients drive two hours from Cape Town to Hermanus, located on Walker Bay near the southernmost tip of Africa. Hermanus offers some of the best shore-based, whale-watching opportunities in the world from June through October, Chegwidden said. Clients stay overnight at the Birkenhead House, a private estate with 11 bedrooms. Dinner is at the estate.

DAY 2

Clients embark on a five-hour drive to Oudtshoorn, which is famous for its ostrich farms. They spend the day exploring the Cango Caves. Clients overnight at the Rosenhof Country House, which features 12 guest rooms. That evening, dinner is served in the Rosenhof's restaurant.

DAY 3

Clients visit an ostrich farm before a two-hour drive via the Outeniqua Pass to George. While in George, Chegwidden recommends clients visit the town museum and Wilderness National Park. Clients overnight at the 150-room Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate, where they can play a round of golf. Dinner is at the hotel's Le Pecheur restaurant, which features local seafood dishes.

DAY 4

From George, clients travel on a two-and-a-half-hour morning excursion to Knysna aboard the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe steam train, which operates year-round except from mid-May to mid-August. In Knysna, they take in the sights of the Knysna Lagoon and visit the Featherbed Nature Reserve. Travelers overnight in Knysna at the Belvidere Manor, which features 30 cottages. Dinner is at the Belvidere's restaurant.

DAY 5

Clients drive four hours to Port Elizabeth, stopping en route at Tsitsikamma National Park to take in its nature trails, giant trees and caves. They stay overnight at the eight-bedroom Hacklewood Hill Country House and dine at its restaurant.

Hand in Hand
Silversea 'redefines' its ties with trade

ary Jean Tully's travel agency has long been a strong supporter of Silversea Cruises. But now she believes her agency, Mississauga, Ontario-based Cruise Professionals, stands to further boost its Silversea sales -- thanks, in large part, to the line's new sales team.

That team, headed by David Morris, senior vice president of North American sales, has made it a point not only to reward Silversea's travel partners but to listen to their input on the onboard product, Tully said.

Silversea also created a travel agency advisory board, whose 40 members met for the first time last month in Dallas.

"It's a huge step for Silversea to bring its top accounts together to talk about what's good about the product and what needs improvement," Tully said.

Morris said, "We're really redefining the relationship Silversea has with agents. We're taking a good relationship a step further."

One way in which that relationship is being boosted is with the creation of a agency recognition program and an online booking program, both of which were unveiled at the advisory board meeting.

The recognition program features two levels. Associate-level retailers receive, among other things, enhanced override pay, 24-hour access to the new booking engine and reduced fam rates.

Silver Society-level agents receive the same benefits as associate retailers plus a dedicated reservations desk, priority wait-list clearance and other perks.

Silversea created a travel agency advisory board. Above, the Silver Whisper. The advisory board meeting also included a detailed briefing on the onboard product and extensive feedback from agents.

"We listened to what they thought and what they wanted," Morris said.

A case in point: Agents at the meeting overwhelmingly agreed that Silversea ships were in need of a casual-dining option on formal nights. Morris said the line is testing such an option.

In the end, Tully said she and her advisory board colleagues are pleased with the way in which Silversea is enhancing its relationship with travel agents.

"David's made Silversea more agent friendly," she said. "He's instilled confidence in the direction the line is taking."

Hand in Hand highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to Agent Life editor Claudette Covey at [email protected].

Going Home
Setting up a home-based agency

Millicent Lee Kaufman. have received a number of telephone and e-mail responses from agents about my Going Home column: Why did I become a home-based agency? How did I set up my office? How did I move into my office? How do I manage my staff and outside agents?

For starters, I became a home-based, ARC/Iatan-appointed agency to lower my costs and to keep my business life simple so I could focus on what I did best -- sell travel.

Change is not easy and, after overcoming my initial doubts, I realized that I needed to get organized and position myself proactively rather than reactively when industry changes occurred. I wanted to establish procedures and find available tools that were designed to aid me.

I live in a house that is close to my former office. I felt wistful every evening when I walked home from work because I was entering a home that was underutilized. I knew the house contained rooms with a private entrance that were self-contained and removed from my living quarters. I believed it could become the ideal office space.

I first checked with ARC to make sure my home office would fit the requirements for a restricted-access agency. I then obtained the necessary forms required to switch from a fully appointed agency to a restricted-access agency.

I also requested a change-of-address form for moving the agency to a new location. I then checked with my town about building and office codes and ordinances to make sure working from my home was legal.

I set an official date for the move a few months in advance. This enabled me to work on the necessary construction to renovate the space and work out the technical aspects of moving.

Construction of the new office space took about six months. With advice from an interior designer, I coordinated the renovations with the various contractors -- carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, office-furniture designers and, most importantly, computer and telephone technicians. Finally, I chose to install a high-speed, broadband Internet access line for office use.

When the new office space was nearing completion, I arranged for my computer reservations system and telephone system to temporarily operate side-by-side with my new operation, to make certain there would be a smooth transition.

Any new office space requires a certain amount of planning, but the cost and effort involved in creating the home office encouraged me to be innovative -- and also increased the equity of my house at the same time.

Millicent Lee Kaufman has been a travel agent for 21 years, owning her own agency for 13 of those years. She has operated a home-based agency since November 2000. She can be reached at [email protected].

5 Things
Making the most of a trade show

1. Determine what shows to attend by asking the show manager for a breakdown of who exhibited at the show the previous year and the job titles of those presenting. "Ask for the names and contacts of attendees with companies of a similar size to yours -- and ask them if they found the show valuable," said Kate Koziol, president of Chicago-based K Squared Communications, a marketing and public relations company. Koziol also recommended that agents ask colleagues and vendors what shows they believe are valuable.

2. Several weeks before the show, contact those vendors and associates and arrange appointments during off-show hours. "Have a mission," Koziol said. Also review the attendee list (if it is available at registration) and study the trade-show floor map to determine what last-minute changes have been made and whom you want to put on your "A" list, she said.

3. Find out what press will be there. "Create a press release and some background materials on your company and schedule interviews," said Koziol. "Press interviews book up early, so don't wait until the last minute." Study the publications you're targeting in order to fashion an appropriate news angle.

4. Attend every public function held during off-show hours -- and don't forget your business card. "You never know who you might meet and where that connection might fit into your future," said Koziol. "Many people would rather eat glass than walk into a roomful of strangers, but networking is crucial to developing business allies."

5. Follow up with vendors and other business contacts within 10 days. "You might have their card, but they might have misplaced yours," said Koziol. "A simple e-mail or a hand-written note will stand out favorably in their minds. Never let a contact go cold, but be careful not to become a pest."

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