Runner's travel business has endurance

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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 minutes.

He also founded the Antarctica Marathon, which has earned a lot of good publicity and lots of headaches.

Fittingly, Gilligan 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 Tours itineraries.

The agency employs six full-timers (five salespeople) and a part-timer, plus two consultants on retainer for public relations/marketing and technology purposes.

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.

Gilligan's 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 Disney World.

In addition, Marathon Tours is the exclusive North American travel agent for the London Marathon.

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 running events.

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 my grave."

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 conditions.

"If they have to carry their bags, they see it as training," Gilligan said.

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 before.

"Sales of exotic events have been booming, and we have to keep finding new events in exotic locations to appease our repeat clients," Gilligan said.

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 itineraries.

On another 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 ship.

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 World.

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 said.

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.

Think you're a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Nadine Godwin, Agent Life editor, at [email protected], and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put "Agent Life" in the subject line.

Perfect Itinerary

A marathon in wine country

The following itinerary, built around Le Marathon des Chateaux du Medoc in France, was prepared by Marathon Tours & Travel in Charlestown, Mass.

Day 1: Depart U.S. for overnight flights to Bordeaux.

Day 2: Arrive in Bordeaux, transfer to the Novotel Bordeaux for five nights in town. Attend a welcome reception, dinner and briefing.

Day 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.

Day 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.

Day 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.

Day 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 Margaux.

Day 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.

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