Selling but staying on

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Trying to decide what to do in the wake of the latest commission caps? As we said in a recent column, some agents are choosing to sell and get out of the travel industry entirely. But others are taking a different approach, using the chance to sell but stay in the business by letting someone else handle the risks and headaches of ownership.

For example, former agency owner Samantha Berky said she felt "wonderful" about not having total responsibility for her business after she sold her agency, TLC Travel in East Greenville, Pa., to Dave Ellis, owner of Carlson Wagonlit/Pack 'n Go Travel in Exton, Pa., in November. After selling, Berky developed a whole new job for herself. As business manager, she's been gradually taking over the bookkeeping and accounting duties for all three of Ellis' agencies. "I wanted to be able to use my expertise in business skills, and this is the first time I'm doing it almost full-time," she said. Berky also does some selling, handling some of her own repeat clients. "After 23 years in the business, I wouldn't want to give that up."

As a former owner, she knew she presented an attractive employment prospect. "It's very difficult to find an employee who knows all aspects of the business as an owner does, from marketing to back-office systems." Ellis is also happy since he now has the time to pay attention to the expansion and marketing of his agency.

Berky, who owned her agency for five years, started looking for a new owner in July after her partner retired. The "economic climate within the industry" was another factor. Berky said she's really happy with the change. "It's just what I wanted. I find my new job exciting and rewarding."

What to consider before you sell

Thinking of selling your agency but want to stay on, possibly as an employee under your former agency's new owners? Here are some tips on what to consider before you take any action, courtesy of Samantha Berky, a former owner who's now business manager of Carlson Wagonlit/Pack 'n Go Travel in Exton, Pa., the company that bought her old agency.

  • When you own your own business, it's a personal thing, "almost like a child," said Berky. Ask yourself if you're really willing to let your child go and be controlled by someone else.
  • Know yourself and your own potential for flexibility. Are you adaptable enough to allow somebody else to call the shots and be the boss while you're just an employee?
  • If you're looking not only for a buyer for your agency but a potential employer with whom you'll continue to interact, be very, very picky. You want to develop a long-term relationship, so check out the buyer carefully. Do you have compatible business styles?
  • "If you find a buyer you know you can work with, then you've got a great thing" said Berky. She found her relationship with her buyer, Doug Ellis, "a good match because we had the same philosophy. The customer was our No. 1 concern."
  • Friendly alliance

    Some agencies are merging or affiliating with others as a survival strategy in today's tough climate. For example, three New York firms -- Humbert Travel, Travel Corp. of America (TCA) and Roberta Sonnino -- formed an alliance last fall, with each company's identity and management remaining totally separate, to "achieve a stronger marketing presence for our preferred suppliers," according to Liliane Nash, co-owner of Humbert Travel.

    Because each shop is in a slightly different part of New York -- TCA downtown, the two others midtown -- each has a different client base. In fact, said TCA owner Richard Gamache, "I'm primarily corporate, while Humbert does corporate, leisure and group travel, and Roberta does a lot of FITs. We felt we have a lot to learn from one another, and as a group could make our businesses grow together."

    Gamache has been "getting a lot of help from Humbert on developing group travel, which is a very lucrative market," he said. In return, he noted, he's been sharing his more sophisticated computer and fax systems with the other two, helping them generate itineraries more efficiently without having to incur the initial expense of upgrading their computer systems.

    Gamache said he's also benefited from the other two "sharing their experience in negotiating fees for new accounts and setting up contracts for corporate accounts."

    Another benefit is psychological, he said. "It's just great to have the support of two other experienced professionals to sit down and discuss things and make decisions with," said Gamache. The international caps hit all three agencies "pretty hard; it helps us to talk to one another."

    Marilyn hits the big time

    It's not every year that a travel industry executive who's also a woman is named one of Business Week's Top 25 Executives. Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Carlson Cos.' vice chair, chief executive officer and president, was only one of three travel executives to make the 1998 list, published in the Jan. 11 issue. The other two were U.S. Airways' Steve Wolf and Rakesh Gangwal. Executives from Intel, America Online, the Gap, Wal-Mart, Pfizer, Sony and Yahoo! were also lauded as "the executives to watch."

    The piece in Business Week also noted that Nelson's father, Curt Carlson, who last year passed on the title of chief executive officer and president to Nelson, "still has 100% voting control of the company." Last year, Nelson was also profiled in another top business magazine, ranking seventh on Fortune magazine's inaugural list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in American Business.

    Others on the list included Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart.

    Galileo workshops

    Galileo Canada's Tools for Success workshops will be held in five Canadian cities in February and March. The free half-day workshops, led by customer relations consultant Terri Knox, offer practical tips on personal growth and professionalism, focusing on "elevating your self-image and making a real difference in your personal and business lives," Galileo Canada said.

    Among the topics covered will be goal-setting; super-exceeding customer expectations; dealing with difficult clients, and creating repeat customers. The show dates are Feb. 16 at the Hilton Toronto; Feb. 17 at the Queen Elizabeth in Montreal; March 2 at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary, Alberta; March 3 at the Sheraton Grande in Edmonton, Alberta, and March 4 at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia. For additional information, call (800) 655-7115 or visit www.galileocanada.ca.

    Net News

  • Visiting Vegas. The site is sponsored by a half-dozen Las Vegas gaming resorts and sports and travel providers. Among the things you'll find are a Top 50 list of things to do in Las Vegas and an extensive list of links to other Las Vegas sites, including hotels, outdoor recreation areas and entertainment venues like the Liberace Museum. Stop by: www.visitingvegas.com
  • Latin life. The site is designed as a clearinghouse of environmental news and ecotourism information on Latin America. If you're looking for books for clients visiting the region, you'll find plenty of reviews here. There are also articles that might help with trip planning as well as directories of services and travel providers. Go to: www2.planeta.com
  • Compiled by Jennifer Dorsey. E-mail suggestions to [email protected]

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