Selling FITS to France

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Reed Travel Features

NEW YORK -- During the past decade, the U.S. traveler to France increasingly has been described as "independent" and "sophisticated," as reflected in French Government Tourist Office figures that show more than 75% of Americans now travel with FIT arrangements. Furthermore, more than half are repeat visitors who often go into a travel agency knowing where they want to go, where they want to stay and what they want to see and do. Although Paris remains the leading destination, the French government's efforts to encourage U.S. travelers to discover regional France are paying off.

There is no doubt that servicing today's clients requires that an agent get to know as much of France as possible, according to Eileen Hughes of Linden Travel Bureau in New York, "and, of course, the best way to do that is just to go." Whether getting acquainted or being reacquainted with France, "every trip cannot be just a sightseeing vacation but one that helps form opinions of services clients will need," Hughes said, "and when I am in France, I leave plenty of time to look at hotels."

According to Hughes, her clients book mostly upscale trips of between two and three weeks. They go to Paris and beyond to Burgundy, Provence and, nowadays, the Dordogne, in the southwest; they rent their own cars, very often picking them up in towns such as Dijon, Lyon and Bordeaux, to which they have taken the TGV from Paris.

"Traveling by TGV to the French provinces, then renting a car at the rail station has become more popular than flying from point to point," she said. Taking the Channel Tunnel train from London to Paris is also a favorite with her business clients, who, using an open-jaw ticket, then fly home from Paris.

Repeat travelers "have gotten into barging and more actively into walking and biking," said Hughes, "and I am talking about clients over 50 and well into their 70s who are having a wonderful time walking in Basque country and the Pyrenees, biking in the Loire Valley."

She pointed out that although biking tours, car rentals and Relais & Chateaux accommodations can be booked from the U.S., many of the small and charming hotels that today's traveler requests don't pay commissions; for handling those bookings, she charges a $25 reservations fee.

"The American traveler is indeed more adventuresome, moving nowadays not from city to city but town to town to village," said Sue Reinach, travel counselor at Traveler's Choice, a Carlson Wagonlit agency in Atlanta. "Our bookings for France are mostly fly-drives, mostly with Kemwel and AutoVenture, which have the best prices," she said.

According to Reinach, her first-time FIT travelers head mostly for Provence, the Riviera and the Loire Valley for 10 to 14 days. "I am always plugging for Normandy and the western Loire, the Dordogne and the Pyrenees," said Reinach, "and it works, because I am selling what I know."

Traveler's Choice clients like noncommercial hotels, from three stars to the Relais & Chateaux properties. "Clients often find dining at the chateaux hotels is very expensive," she said, "but I tell them to enjoy the experience of one meal at the hotel, then eat at local restaurants and cafes the rest of the time."

She also pointed out that agents will have to count on three months' leeway in collecting commissions at the small regional hotels. As for travel tips she gives to clients: She tells those who know any French at all to use it; it breaks the ice in a country whose people feel strongly about their language.

The current specialty at Sibyl Wild Travel of Scarsdale, N.Y., is cruises departing from Monte Carlo, combined with pre- and post-cruise arrangements. The agency, according to president Sibyl Wild, sells lots of self-drive travel to all parts of France, particularly the south, Burgundy, Brittany, Normandy and Champagne.

"For all fly-drive clients," she said, "I recommend the following: Plan with a map, and don't plan on covering more than 150 miles a day. And avoid one-night stands, or you won't remember where you were when you get home."

According to Wild, her clients book a lot of four- and five-star Relais & Chateaux stays, "although they are very often shocked by the prices." She books these through the New York reservations office when she can, although often, because there are so few rooms, clients cannot get the space.

At any of France's choice small hotels and inns, she pointed out, May and September are the two worst months to get confirmation of the space you need. When Wild books hotels directly, she prepays net.

France is almost totally an FIT, upscale and repeat-travel destination at Thompson Travel in Santa Monica, Calif., where Kattie Cadar said that planning trips that meet client expectations is a cooperative effort between client, agent and the agent's associates. "To get it right," said Cadar, "you have to listen very carefully to the clients' interests and expectations before starting any travel planning. Our office has a wealth of experience," she said, "and I am a member of Professional Women in Travel, and we do a lot of information networking with each other."

Cadar said that special-interest FITs need more meticulous planning than ever, and the example she used was biking. "There seem to be a lot of people with a more active streak than there used to be, although often those people want a mix of biking and car or rail touring," she said. For biking arrangements, she has gone to specialists such as Backroads, Jet Vacations and Butterfield & Robinson, she said.

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