Scream

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"There was so much security, it was just like traveling with the president." That is what Alan Gerstner, vice president of the Cruise Corner & Vacation Center, Wilmette, Ill., had to say about the backstage scene during a promotion involving the pop singing group the Backstreet Boys.

The planning for the group's appearance at a Sears store in Tampa, Fla., included a 10-page outline of such details as where the barricades were going to be, according to Gerstner.

Howie Dorough of the Backstreet Boys signs autographs at the Sears promotion in Tampa, Fla. There were paramedics, police security, store security and a celebrity security firm on alert -- all because of the group's popularity as darlings of the preteen-and-beyond set.

"Wherever the Boys go, there are hundreds of girls who follow them and scream," said Gerstner.

Gerstner was handling travel arrangements for a Sears contest whose winners got a trip to the group's concert in Tampa and a $2,000 shopping spree at a Tampa Sears with their favorite "Boy."

The actual agency client Gerstner was serving was Wunderman Cato Johnson, an advertising promotion firm working with Sears.

Gerstner booked all the travel for the contest winners and for the Wunderman contingent, and he coordinated some details of the Boys' activities, as well.

It was Gerstner's 16-year-old daughter Lisa (who frequently lends a hand with agency duties) who really lucked out: Not only did she get to meet the group, she got to appear (for a second or two) on national television. Lisa Gerstner was shown talking to one of the Backstreet Boys, Nick Carter, on an "Access Hollywood" segment filmed about the contest.

For Gerstner, the surprise was that the celebrities were actually "nice, down-to-earth kids." He watched as a group member, Kevin Richardson, picked up the tab for a contest winner who went over the $2,000 limit for the shopping spree.

But having to deal with all of the event's logistics -- including several quick changes for the Backstreet Boys' route to the Sears store -- couldn't help but take its toll.

Gerstner noted, "It was really stressful, but when it was over, there was that sigh of relief when you know you've done a good job and everything came off."

Efficient celebrity handling

It's a real challenge to handle a promotion for megawatt celebrities such as the Backstreet Boys, as Alan Gerstner well knows (see story at above). Here, Gerstner, vice president of the Cruise Corner & Vacation Center, Wilmette, Ill., suggests the following for those dealing with famous travelers:

Alan Gerstner.

  • Learn to qualify suppliers for special needs. Gerstner was extra careful when researching limo companies to transport the group. He called several, always asking to speak to the owner, and specified that "I needed a company with a stable full of limos. The first thing I asked was, 'Can you supply me with 15 limos at a time?' Then I asked, 'Have you ever dealt with celebrities?'"
  • The winning company not only had armor-plated cars, they had drivers who had been through defensive-driving courses for transporting dignitaries.

  • Be super-organized during the event. Gerstner said he walked around with a portfolio containing every piece of paper relating to the job: correspondence, key players' names and business and home phone numbers.
  • This information came in handy when a limo broke down, and Gerstner called the owner of the limo company at home to arrange for a replacement vehicle.

  • Use your network of contacts well. Gerstner, who works for an American Express rep agency, called another American Express office in Tampa, Fla. (where the promotion was held), to research local suppliers.
  • Learn to be discreet. Gerstner had to tell the limo company that he couldn't even provide specifics of the Backstreet Boys' final location until a day or two before the event and that the info "has to be kept quiet."
  • All the event documents were put under American Express, not the Backstreet Boys, to keep anyone who handled them from blurting out information to fans/paparazzi who called.

    Make flying times a selling point

    Agents need to realize that the public is generally unfamiliar with specific flying times to major destinations. That is why I like to see this issue addressed at the beginning of any discussion you have with your clients about vacation choices.

    Richard Turen.Do they realize, for instance, that most of the more interesting Caribbean islands require a change of planes in Miami or San Juan? For just about the same travel time, they may be able to fly to Hawaii -- at least from the Midwest. Do your clients know that French Polynesia is only two-and-a-half hours beyond Hawaii, or just seven-and-a-half hours from the West Coast?

    I recently returned from Hong Kong. My flight back took just two-and-a-half hours longer then a flight I took to Rome from Chicago six months ago. How many Midwest clients know that the Orient is just a football game longer than a flight to Europe?

    Over the years, I have found that clients come to us because they want to explore what I like to call "the infinite possibilities of life."

    Consider developing a "20 Places Worth Visiting" flying time chart. The idea would be to list some exotic destinations side by side with the more common options to demonstrate that flying time realities are often quite different from perceptions.

    Richard Turen is an industry consultant and travel agency president. Contact him at [email protected].

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