What's the hardest part of running your agency? For many, finding and keeping good employees rank right up there with increasing revenue.

The answer is not always to raid travel schools, according to Donna Daniels, president and part-owner of Fox Travel, an American Express representative in greater Houston.

Donna Daniels gets creative when looking for new hires. Staffers are seen here with Randy Ott, Funjet Houston sales office, second from left, when the agency received the 2000 Funjet 500 Club Award this spring. Daniels, who owns the 15-year-old leisure agency along with her husband, James Bailey, has had her share of misadventures with travel school graduates.

"I have hired several people from a travel school, and they didn't work out," she said.

With this in mind, Daniels came up with a list of suggestions on how travel schools can better serve the travel community:

  • Ask agency owners and managers to help design the school curriculum.
  • "They need to ask travel agencies what they need green agents to be able to do right out of the oven," she said.

  • Invite past graduates who are now working travel agents to be guest speakers at the school.
  • "Students graduate thinking they are going to be able to walk into an agency and start ticketing," she said. "They need to know that is not the case."

  • Incorporate role playing into the curriculum so that students can learn to qualify clients and closing techniques.
  • "They should learn to ask questions like 'Are you celebrating something?' and 'When was the last time you traveled?' " she said.

  • Screen prospective students not only in terms of ability, but of aptitude.
  • "Make sure students know what to expect in terms of salary, hours and travel opportunities," Daniels said.

  • Emphasize such real-life skills as answering the telephone, taking messages and greeting walk-ins.
  • "Computer skills, ticketing and other office tasks take a back seat to these more elementary skills," she said.

    Bottom line: "You have to be able to correctly spell and pronounce the name of the client."

    Beating the bushes

    So how does Donna Daniels, part-owner of Fox Travel in Houston, find good employees? Her staff, all of whom Daniels prizes, came to her through a mixture of advertising, kismet and pixie dust.

    "A week ago a woman with 26 years' experience as an agent just walked in the door," Daniels said.

    Donna Daniels.Daniels said the woman left a competing agency in response to one of her newspaper advertisements. "I spent $700 a month to run an ad in four newspapers, and I got five responses," she said.

    The carefully worded ad did not mention minimum amount of experience, and it didn't say anything about Apollo training; instead, the focus was on fun, self-motivation and sales experience, she said.

    Retraining an experienced agent to a new computer system and office procedure was no big deal, Daniels said of her new hire, adding "she was immediately productive."

    As to the other responses, two were from salespeople without travel experience, and Daniels is considering hiring them to man her travel kiosk at a local mall.

    "My theory is that it is easier to learn the travel business than it is to learn how to sell."

    Daniels has one more shining star in her arsenal, she said, who is -- you guessed it -- a travel school graduate.

    "We were the 23rd agency she applied to, and she is a shining star. In short, she is the exception" to Daniels' experience with travel school grads, she said.

    Instant smarts

    By now, unless you were on Mars, you know there is more profit in selling tours and cruises vs. airline tickets.

    How would you like a software program that will match your client with a travel product, check availability, make a reservation and produce an invoice while the client is sitting by your desk?

    In other words, how would you like to be what we were meant to be -- expert travel consultants able to service clients in an efficient manner at the point of sale?

    Lucy Hirleman.How about a client management system that will save you hundreds of dollars (possibly thousands, if you lease), not to mention time?

    What would you be willing to pay for a product that could, at the very least, reduce the number of CRS workstations, and at best, break the bonds of CRSs completely?

    If you enjoy being an unpaid lackey for the airlines, click another link. But if you want to continue to reduce unprofitable point-to-point airline tickets, read on.

    Smart Travel Technologies Inc. in conjunction with the U.S. Tour Operators Association, has produced Package Power. The software, on CD, works in conjunction with an Internet site and will allow for continuously updated information.

    One of the components is SmartLink, which searches through thousands of vacation options by destination and type of vacation. It will compare products from several tour operators at once.

    The Electronic Brochure gives users access to all the operator's tour and vacation options, eliminating the need to call the reservations department.

    It will show availability of departure dates; price the tour selected based on gateway, dates and pre- and post-options, and allow electronic reservations.

    The cost? Free to the first 5,000 agencies that request the program at www.ustoapackagepower.com.

    What are you waiting for -- airline commissions to be restored?

    Lucy Hirleman, CTC, MCC, owns Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J. Contact her at [email protected]; fax (973) 208-1204.

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