Selling cruises for causes

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nyone who says the travel agency business is all about making money hasn't met Susan Zoller, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Cruise World. "You can't be successful in business if you're not going to give back to the community," she said. "You have to give in order to get."

It's not surprising that a person with such an attitude has successfully tapped into the fund-raising cruise niche. The journey that transformed Zoller into an expert at selling this type of cruise, however, was unspeakably painful, yet richly rewarding, she said.

Shortly after Zoller opened Cruise World in 1997, the unimaginable happened. Her teenage son, Ryan, was killed in a car accident on the way home from a graduation party. The teenage driver of the car had been drunk.

Ryan's death spurred Zoller to begin working with schools to educate people about the dangers of drunk driving. She also created the Ryan Zoller Foundation, which provides students with college scholarships.

Because charitable endeavors had become of paramount importance to Zoller, she actively sought out cruise lines that would partner with the agency to create fund-raising events. She found such a partner in Carnival Cruise Lines, which had recently launched Carnival Cruising for Charity, which enables agents to help nonprofit groups raise even more money through a matching fund plan.

Zoller planned a fashion and talent show fund-raiser event on Carnival's Sensation to raise money for college scholarships. Eighteen schools participated, and more than 450 people attended.

The event, which was held on a day when the ship was in port, raised enough money for six scholarships, which included matching contributions from Carnival.

"I thought this was so significant that I wanted to organize fund-raiser cruises," said Zoller, adding that any organization that is a nonprofit entity is eligible.

She then set out to promote a cruise that would raise funds for MAPS International, a full-service, nonprofit adoption agency -- the organization Zoller and her husband, Wald, used to adopt a Romanian baby named Maria in 2000. "She has absolutely brought so much love and joy into our lives," said Zoller.

The five-day cruise, aboard Carnival's Fascination, included more than 100 people, including adopted children and their families, and social workers, Zoller said. Social workers were able to earn credits for study programs from onboard lectures, and parents had the chance to partake in family-parenting classes.

"It was so rewarding to spend quality time with these families," Zoller said. "We mingled and had a great time."

Fund-raising cruises now account for 25% to 30% of Cruise World's business, Zoller said. One of the elements that make these cruises a winning proposition for agents is the fact that fund-raising groups usually book again -- and also recommend the cruises to other organizations.

"There's a high level of repeat and referral business. Once you've done the fund-raiser once, you've planted the seed," said Zoller, adding that through 2005 she has signed contracts with no fewer than 10 nonprofit organizations for fund-raising cruises.

Zoller has also targeted hospitals heavily for fund-raisers. She built this segment by first contacting hospitals' human resources department and then presenting a creative program HR can sell to its employees. "You have to be proactive and persistent and tell them it's a great way to raise money, have fun and create wonderful camaraderie among employees."

In addition to hospital groups, church groups account for a large chunk of Cruise World's fund-raising business. Although the church always played an active role in Zoller's life -- she has long been a member of St. Timothy Catholic Church in Lutz, Fla. -- it became even more important since Ryan's death. "Without my faith I don't think I'd be here today," she said.

Zoller noted that all churches have different clubs, from men's to women's to seniors. What she does is present the idea of a cruise to that particular clubs fund-raising committee. "Once they select a date we customize fliers and we present it," she said. Cruise World then organizes a cruise night at the church.

All things considered, Zoller's fund-raising efforts have paid off. The 11-person agency has grown significantly every year. Cruise World's annual sales volume was $7 million 2003, and Zoller is projecting an annual volume of $10 million this year.

In essence, Zoller believes she's been doubly blessed. "To be able to mix my passion for my business with my passion for helping others is the most rewarding experience. It brings a special balance to life."

The Perfect Itinerary
Cathedrals, palaces highlight St. Petersburg

reg Tepper, a travel consultant and eastern Europe specialist at Exeter International in Tampa, Fla., designed a five-night trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. The tour comes with five excursions exclusive to Exeter International as well as a car, driver and English-speaking guide.

Day 1

A driver and guide meet clients at the airport. Clients check into the newly renovated Hotel Astoria. After check-in, clients take a tour of the city, including the Peter Paul Fortress and fairytale-like Smolny Cathedral. Visitors dine at the Old Custom's House, a plush restaurant located in an 18th century warehouse.

The dome at the top of St. Isaac's Cathedral offers terrific views of St. Petersburg.Day 2

Clients visit the Hermitage Museum, the former Winter Palace. The tour includes an exclusive viewing of the Gold Treasures Rooms. In the afternoon, they visit St. Isaac's Cathedral, whose dome offers one of the finest views of St. Petersburg. Next, travelers will visit the recently renovated Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg. In the evening they attend a Russian Orthodox service at St. Nicholas Cathedral. Dinner is at the Karavan Restaurant, featuring central Asian cuisine.

Day 3

Clients travel to the countryside to visit Pavlovsk Palace and Catherine Palace, with an exclusive viewing of the latter's Amber Room Workshops. The venue for lunch is the Podvorye restaurant in Pavlovsk, which features folk entertainment. In the evening, traveler's dine at Restaurant Palkin, serving Russian and French cuisine.

Day 4

Clients take a one-hour hydroplane voyage to Peterhof Palace, known as the Russian Versailles. An exclusive excursion will be made to the Cottage of Peterhof, a rarely seen summer mansion that was a favorite of the czars. Dinner is at the Tea Pavilion in the Yusupov Palace, one of the finest restaurants in eastern Europe.

Day 5

Clients view one of largest collections of purely Russian art at the Russian Museum. They also visit the Yusupov Palace for a private tour. Another exclusive highlight is a behind-the-scenes, backstage tour of the Kirov. In the evening, clients visit one of the grandest private palaces in Russia, the Spiridanov Palace, for an exclusive tour and four-course dinner.

Hand in Hand
An ally in Avignon

here's never any doubt where Clare Seyer books clients traveling to Avignon, France. In her view, there's only one property that fits the bill: The four-star, 100-room Hotel d'Europe.

Seyer, who specializes in travel to France at Poe Travel in Little Rock, Ark., said she views the general manager, Hendrik Daudeij, as an extension of the agency.

In an informal sense, Daudeij really does act as a travel agent. He'll spend copious amounts of time with hotel guests to make sure their expectations are met -- and exceeded.

One set of clients, she said, casually asked Daudeij to recommend a winery. "He got out a map and showed them where they could go," said Seyer. "He was their travel agent for an hour."

In short, she knows that booking clients at his hotel will leave them as pleased as punch. "They go back to Avignon because of him," said Seyer. "They all say he's fabulous."

Hotel d'Europe in Avignon, France.In Seyer's estimation, the four-star Hotel d'Europe offers more than some five-star properties. "There are five-star hotels in the area, and this hotel beats the socks off of them," she said. And the hotel is a veritable bargain, with room prices starting at about $163.

From Daudeij's perspective, his attention to detail -- and guests' needs -- is all in a day's work. "I'm just doing my job," he said, adding that he even sat in the hospital with a guest who had had an accident in the Avignon area.

The woman's travel agent called and asked if Daudeij could visit the woman in the hospital. He did.

Another hotel guest was taken to the hospital when his appendix burst. Again, Daudeij stayed by his side.

The guest, who was an American, was nervous about being operated on in Europe. He agreed to stay in the hospital only if Daudeij stayed with him. Daudeij stayed.

It's clear Daudeij takes his role as general manager seriously.

"It's like being a captain on a ship," said Daudeij. "Anything can happen -- and you have to be able to take care of it."

Hand in Hand highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to Agent Life editor Claudette Covey at [email protected].

Going Home
Quality of life

y original intent on becoming a home-based travel agent four years ago was to save time and money. And since moving my office to my house, some people have asked me if I have been affected by having both my professional and personal life in such close contact. I have found the benefits of my move far outweigh the drawbacks.

Millicent Lee Kaufman.Convenience: My commute is very short. I do not need a car, and I do not have to battle the elements of bad weather. My former office faced a busy and noisy street. The parking lot was a distance from my office, which was located on the second floor of an office building.

There was no elevator in my former space, and I had to climb up a steep flight of stairs to get to my agency. My home office is now on a separate floor from the rest of my home, and it allows for privacy when I am working. It overlooks a lovely garden with woods behind it that is peaceful and quiet. I have ample off-street parking for visitors near the entrance to my office, which is on the ground floor.

Under ARC regulations, full-service agencies required commercial zoning and required a full-time staff presence. Under restricted, access rules, I no longer have to adhere to 9 a.m to 5 p.m. office hours, and I do not need a full-time attendant. I can handle emergencies on an as-needed basis.

Time: Due to the Internet and the technical advances with computer systems and travel software programs, my office procedures have become efficient. I have more free time and greater flexibility in using my time during the day. I am able to pursue personal matters in between business projects, such as volunteer work, friends and grandchildren.

And, worthy of consideration, my staff and my independent contractor agents can also work from home. With virtual offices set up elsewhere, my staff and agents can work at their leisure. Life has been easier for them, too.

Money: One primary goal of going home was to cut costs. I now have little overhead. Having no rent to pay has been a major relief. I no longer have to duplicate utility bills, phone systems and office equipment.

Being online has simplified the way I do business. I have less upkeep in office maintenance and supplies.

Office improvements in my house add to the value of my home. A portion of my home used as office space can be a tax write-off. I can deduct a portion of operating expenses, such as utilities, and a portion of maintenance expenses from my taxes, as well. Of course, you should consult your tax attorney and your accountant for advice and full details.

Overall, I have found my office move to be mostly a positive experience. In order to work from a home office, one needs to be focused and disciplined.

I make an effort every day to go out. I keep up with travel news and attend travel seminars. I communicate on a daily basis with other agents and vendors. Personally, I am now more relaxed and, as a result, my professional life has become more rewarding.

Millicent Lee Kaufman has been a travel agent for 21 years, owning her own agency for 13 of those years. She has a home-based agency since 2000. E-mail her at [email protected].

5 Things
Tips for designing a business card

1. Make sure the quality of the business card is excellent. A high grade of paper stock and high quality of printing are extremely important. "A business card is the one thing that someone retains when they meet you," said Melissa Crowe, director of marketing at Lexington, Mass.-based VistaPrint, a printing company that specializes in producing business cards.

2. Lead with the name of your company. "When someone comes upon your card, you want them to know exactly who that person is and what that person does," said Crowe. "You don't want to get lost in the shuffle." Crowe suggests using a clear, concise positioning statement on the front of the card if room permits. For instance, VistaPrint has a tagline on its employee business cards that reads: "Best Printing. Best Price."

3. Contact information should be clearly printed. The information should be legible and include e-mail address, fax and phone numbers -- but no more than two phone numbers. "It's confusing to have any more numbers than that," said Crowe. The contact information should appear in this order: your title at the travel agency, your personal name, phone and fax numbers, e-mail address and company Internet address.

4. Do not use type that is less than a 10-point font. "You want to make sure it's clear and that a person can read it," said Crowe. "You could go bigger, but you don't need to."

5. Make use of the back of the business card to market yourself. "People tend to leave the back of a business card blank, and they don't need to," said Crowe. "Provide a clear call to action," she said. For example, the back of the card could say, "Visit www.companyname.com for a free travel consultation now." Agents can also transform the back of the business card into a luggage tag or calendar. "Leverage the card as much as possible," Crowe said, "and always have them with you."

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