Massachusetts agent and avid long-distance
runner Thom Gilligan was fired at the only retail travel agency he
ever worked for.
Why? Because he was
spending too much time promoting trips to runners. "We were getting
a good business," he said.
But his employer
was not interested.
The firing "was the
biggest favor anyone could have ever done for me," Gilligan said.
It sent him off to start an agency, Marathon Tours & Travel in
Charlestown, built entirely around his love for the sport. That was
28 years ago.
In the years after,
Gilligan built trips around marathons and selected other running
events. He accompanied clients and ran in races. Gilligan has run
in 62 marathons, with a personal-best time of two hours and 31
He also founded the
Antarctica Marathon, which has earned a lot of good publicity and
lots of headaches.
met his wife, Sharon, also a long-distance runner, at a marathon in
Bermuda in 1980.
She is a nurse by
profession but accompanies some running trips, sometimes in tandem
with Gilligan, sometimes on her own.
Today, Gilligan is
president and owner of a business that serves 7,000 to 8,000
clients a year.
He said 97% of the
business is running-related, and more than 90% consists of groups.
He learned the nitty-gritty of creating and pricing packages during
an earlier stint working for a wholesaler.
Gilligan added that
his full-service agency handles some FITs for runners who want to
participate in events that are not featured on one of the Marathon
The agency employs
six full-timers (five salespeople) and a part-timer, plus two
consultants on retainer for public relations/marketing and
Of roughly two
dozen group trips a year, he and/or Sharon accompany about
one-third of the groups. Two staffers come along as escorts, and
the agency calls on about half a dozen others who are qualified
tour managers and runners.
marketing is highly focused on runner expos, running shops and some
running clubs, plus "an aggressive PR campaign and, most
importantly, contacts from within the sport that allow us to have
exclusivity in guaranteeing entry to the most popular events." That
includes giving access after the deadline for signing up online for
marathons in Berlin; Chicago; Paris; Stockholm, Sweden; and at Walt
Marathon Tours is the exclusive North American travel agent for the
The agency uses Marathontours.com to market and offers downloadable
booking forms, but no live booking option.
The agency also is
the fulfillment house for charities that reward successful
fund-raisers -- those who run to raise money -- with trips to major
The tour packages
themselves "have value-added services and experiences people can't
get on their own, such as transportation, dinners and special
pricing on event entries."
Gilligan said, "I
have relationships with those event directors that I will take to
Runners are good
travelers, he said. They are highly educated, seek challenges and
like the camaraderie of their groups. They are not unsettled by
inclement weather, as they will run in almost any
"If they have to
carry their bags, they see it as training," Gilligan
This market has
grown over the years. Destinations have found the "magic formula"
of offering half-marathons and other shorter runs to accompany the
big event, he said.
As a result, more
people travel to participate, including retired marathon runners
and spouses who walk the routes.
The other important
development is runners' desire to travel farther afield than ever
"Sales of exotic
events have been booming, and we have to keep finding new events in
exotic locations to appease our repeat clients," Gilligan
That is why the
agency has taken clients to Easter Island, France to run in the
vineyards or Kenya to run in a game park. That is why it is adding
a Madagascar run next year.
And that is why the
Antarctica Marathon was born in 1995.
Gilligan said he
had a "gut feeling" that launching an Antarctic run was a good
idea, after listening to his "Type A" clients discuss the things
they wanted to do and the things they were doing, like extreme
skiing and triathlons.
It has been a great
success. He charters two ships for the trip and must have 150 to
200 clients onboard. Initially, Gilligan operated the tour every
other year. Now, it is an annual event, with 2008 and 2009 sold
out. Marathon is selling into 2010 now.
But getting to this
juncture was not easy, and there are no guarantees that future
trips will go easily because most problems are related to equipment
or weather -- except for a start-up crisis when Gilligan planned to
take his customers to the Argentine base.
Argentina said no
just as Gilligan was about to send out documents, so the event was
moved to King George Island, off the coast of Antarctica, where it
has been held nine times.
There have been
other snags. One year, a ship's radar malfunctioned for 26 hours,
using up much of the fudge time he always builds into these
occasion, the run started about two hours before some clients were
able to get off their ship; the problem was winds and rough seas.
Even worse, one year the conditions were so bad that the clients
couldn't get off the ship. So they ran their marathon on the
The stories are so
colorful that there will be a book, due in stores and on the Web in
February 2009, called "On Thin Ice: A Memoir of the Antarctica
Marathon," written by John Hanc, who also writes for Runner's
There has been lots
of fun, too, including three weddings on Antarctica-bound ships.
Gilligan said he was not involved in the wedding planning except to
"read them the rule book," which essentially says they have to have
another wedding on land to make it legal.
After the first
Antarctica run in 1995, Gilligan had four clients who had run a
marathon on all seven continents, so he established his Seven
Continents Club. That grew and then evolved into his
frequent-runners club, called the VIP Travel Club. Members pay a
one-time $100 entry for special benefits.
For its 240
members, those benefits mean first dibs on the 30 to 32 slots that
will be available on the Madagascar run next July. There will be
more demand than space, and club members will get it all, Gilligan
Excess demand is
fine by him. "You want lines out the door and down the block, and
you want everyone to see that," he said.
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A marathon in
itinerary, built around Le Marathon des Chateaux du Medoc in
France, was prepared by Marathon Tours & Travel in Charlestown,
1: Depart U.S. for overnight flights to
2: Arrive in Bordeaux, transfer to the Novotel Bordeaux
for five nights in town. Attend a welcome reception, dinner and
3: The group boards a bus for wine tastings and cellar
tours at such vineyards as Chateau D'Alesmes, Chateau Lynch-Bages,
Pichon Longuevielle and other classified chateaux.
Lunch is at Chateau
D'Alesmes, followed by a pick-up of race numbers and a pre-race
dinner and party.
4: Race day. Runners transfer to the start of Le Marathon
des Chateaux du Medoc, starting at 9:30 a.m. Don't forget to wear
an outrageous costume (95% of the runners do). This marathon is
routed through 59 vineyards in the fabled villages of the Medoc
region. The course reads more like a wine list than a race course:
Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Lynch-Bages,
Pichon Lonqueville and Beychevelles, among others. Where else are
you asked at the aid stations, "Red or white?" Water is also
offered. After the race, transfer to the hotel in late afternoon.
Dinner is on your own.
5: Transfer to the north for a nine-kilometer recuperation
walk, with wine tastings at several chateaux and food tastings.
Various bands entertain. Return in the late afternoon to Bordeaux.
Dinner is on your own.
6: There's a morning trip to St. Emilion for a chateau
visit and tasting in this historical district. Marathon Tours &
Travel has a contact here with one of the best wine shops in
Bordeaux. It will offer complimentary tastings and the opportunity
to purchase from a wide choice of wines from throughout the region.
The shop offers shipping for those who want to restock their wine
cellars. The afternoon is free to explore this 11th century
village, often referred to as one of the most beautiful in France.
The tour concludes with a gala banquet at the Chateau de Tertre in
7: Participants transfers to the airport for return
flights. Extended stays can be arranged individually.
The Perfect Itinerary is an example of an itinerary an agent
crafted his or herself, not available anywhere else, but can be
duplicated by other agents to sell to their clients. To send an
example of an itinerary you've customized, e-mail to [email protected] with "Perfect Itinerary" in
the subject line.