Selling the luxurient life

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When Rich Skinner and business partner Steve Sibley opened a travel agency three years ago, they were certain that a narrow focus would glean maximum results. Skinner and Sibley, who co-own Cruise Holidays of Woodinville, in Woodinville, Wash., decided that bargain-basement cruise sales were not for them.

We decided to specialize from the middle of the ship up -- from balconies to suites. Because its a little higher-priced product, theres more of an opening to focus on better service, said Skinner, adding that the agency would let the commodity marketers set their sights on lower-end product and prices.

By selling higher-end cruises, the agency is able to concentrate on multidimensional travel experiences that can be customized. Cruise Holidays nine employees arrange intricate pre- and post-cruise tours for clients and spend considerable amounts of time ensuring that travelers are matched to the right stateroom, ship and itinerary, Skinner said.

Everybody who works for us is very strong in product knowledge, he added.

Projecting an affluent image

To reinforce the agencys upscale image, the two men chose a location for Cruise Holidays that would draw a more affluent client. The storefront is located in the middle of Woodinville wine country, a  quarter of a mile away from the Chateau St. Michelle winery.

We feel very comfortable with the gourmand part of the business and those people who appreciate the finer things in life, said Skinner.

To further drive home the agencys upscale image, Cruise Holidays phones are answered: Cruise Holidays of Woodinville, Home of the Luxurient Traveler.

The term luxurient traveler, said Skinner, is used as a marketing tool. The agencys Web site is www.luxurient.com.

Skinner said the agencys target demographic is travelers age 40 and above with incomes of $100,000 a year or more.

Our market is college graduates who are reasonably sophisticated travelers, said Skinner. For us to have intelligent customers enables us to customize their travel experiences. 

Yo, Vinnie!

Although Skinner said that repeat and referral business are the agencys lifeblood, Cruise Holidays nonetheless works hard to bring first-timers into the cruise fold.

To edify the uninitiated, Skinner has written a loose-leaf handbook called Exploring the Magic of Cruising with Vinnie the Cruise Dog.

In the book, Vinnie, Skinners West Highland terrier, has never cruised, but instead has to settle for the wonderful tales spun by his people who have cruised far and wide on amazing cruise ships around the world.

The book covers the history of the cruise industry, the difference between cruises, misperceptions about cruising and cruise trends.

Front-line agents spend so much time giving customers basic information about cruising, said Skinner. This book was written to cut down on that time by explaining the cruise experience and the differences between cruise lines.

While Skinner is the marketing force behind Cruise Holidays, Sibley spearheads all e-commerce initiatives. (Or, as he puts it, I do Windows.)

Sibley has more than 25 years of experiencing selling advanced technology products at Hewlett-Packard and its Agilent spin-off.

Skinner has been connected with the cruise industry for the past 20 years, nine of them as the director of public relations for Holland America Line.

Following his stint at Holland America, Skinner owned his own public relations firm and helped introduce ships for Holland America, Windstar Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Delta Queen Steamboat Co., Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises.

PR background a plus

Skinner makes good use of his public relations background.

We do a fair amount of news and press releases, he said. We write releases the provide something useful to journalists, such as why European cruises are a good value or why its smart to book Alaska early to obtain the best pricing.

Although savvy marketing and technology have played a huge role in the agencys success, a simple passion and enthusiasm for the cruise industry is equally important, Skinner said. For me, travel has always been the neatest thing. A dividend to hard work has always been being able to take advantage of really great travel experiences.

TravelWeekly.com wants to hear your story. Think youre a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Claudette Covey at [email protected], and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address.

Perfect Itinerary

Discovering Sri Lanka

Fred Poe, who founded Little Rock, Ark.-based Poe Travel in 1961, designed a five-night itinerary to Sri Lanka, a destination he has visited a dozen times. The Isle of Serendib is a place where in a remarkably small area, an astonishing kaleidoscope of climates, scenes, wildlife, ancient art and world-class beaches can be found, said Poe.

Day 1

Clients are met by their guide at Colombo Airport and driven to the Cultural Triangle in central Sri Lanka. During the drive, they visit Sigiriya, a former fortress set atop a giant rocky outcropping above the jungle. The site is famous for its magnificent ancient paintings. Clients stay at the Elephant Corridor, designed by architect Sir Geoffrey Bawa. Clients dine that evening at the hotel restaurant.

Day 2

Clients embark for a full day of sightseeing at the ancient, deserted cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. They return to the Elephant Corridor for a treatment at the hotels Ayurvedic and wellness spa, followed by dinner at the hotel.

Day 3

Travelers are driven to Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth, one of Buddhisms holiest sites. A five-day Sri Lanka itinerary includes museum visits, spa treatments, sightseeing and shopping. Pictured here, a seated Buddha statue.They enjoy a light lunch at the cafe of the Queens Hotel, a favorite of Leonard Woolf, the writer Virginia Woolfs husband. Travelers continue into the mountains to the hill station of Nurawa Eliya, which is set among miles of rippling tea plantations and truck gardens. Lodging, by special arrangement, is at the baronial Hill Club, a bastion for the tea growing aristocracy. They dine at the propertys club for a formal dinner.

Day 4

Clients spend the morning enjoying the grounds of the Hill Club before departing for Colombo. En route, they visit the famed Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawela by feeding time to watch elephants cavort in the river below. Travelers proceed to Mount Lavinia, one of Colombos poshest beach neighborhoods, for a swim, dinner and an overnight stay at the 100-year-old Mount Lavinia Hotel, a favorite of British actor and playwright Noel Coward.

Day 5

The day is spent sightseeing in Colombo, visiting the citys elegant Cinnamon Gardens quarter, the National Museum, the Old Dutch areas and maybe some gem and jewelry shops. The site for lunch is Barefoot, a contemporary cafe-cum-shop in what is, in essence, an artisans cooperative. Travelers check into the Colombo Hilton with its pretty grounds and pool. They dine at the hotels Sri Lankan al fresco restaurant set amid the gardens.

The Perfect Itinerary is an example of an itinerary an agent crafted his or herself, not available anywhere else, but can be duplicated by other agents to sell to their clients. To send an example of an itinerary youve customized, e-mail Covey at [email protected].

Hand In Hand

Tony Perez Travel an expert partner in the Yucatan

Jewell Ramos knows Mexico inside and out. She has, after all, traveled to the destination more than 90 times. Ramos, an independent contractor with Worldview Travel of Santa Ana, Calif., also knows which tour operators to work with in order to provide her clients with vacation experiences that shine.

One such company is Tony Perez Travel Service, a company operated by Ignacio Nacho Perez, whose specialty is the southeast Yucatan region.

I consider Nacho to be the Yucatan expert, said Ramos.

Perezs company, which is based in Merida -- the Yucatan state capital -- can sate the travel requests of any type of client, said Ramos, whether they have common requirements or special interests.

The clients can just sit back and relax and travel at their own pace while the company driver and guide takes care of all the sightseeing details, she said.

Because of Perezs solid contacts in the Yucatan region, the company can coordinate a host of special-interest tours, such as woodworking.

Ramos was able to book a woodworking hobbyist on a trip that visited an array of artisans throughout the region.

With 25 years of experience in the Yucatan, it is not surprising that Perez has many contacts.

We know all the stone and wood artisans, said Perez. We can take travelers directly to their factories.

No matter what a clients interest -- spa, culinary or cultural  -- Perez said his company will be able to tailor a program to match.

Agents who send clients his way will get a taste of Mexicos rich diversity, including its archaeology, colonial history and distinct scenery.

Sometimes agents need a reference when booking travel to the Yucatan, said Perez.

And were a very reliable tour operator.

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

Marc My Words

Are they serious?

By Marc Mancini

Whats the difference between price shopping and browsing? If youre actually interested in making a purchase but are looking for the best deal, youre price shopping. If youre vaguely looking for something that will strike your fancy -- or even just killing time -- youre browsing.

How can a travel agent tell the difference between the two?

A price shopper almost always contacts you by telephone, seems rushed and has already done plenty of research. Browsers, on the other hand, may be interested in a trip in a vague sort of way, but dont know where they want to go, or even when.

Here are some tips to deal with each:

Price shoppers: Before quoting a price, ask a few open-ended, qualifying questions. Explain that you want to be sure that the product really fits the clients needs. Your concern may set you apart from other agents theyve called.

Then, if necessary, suggest they call you with the best deal they can find and youll try to match it. Its unlikely anyone else will have made this offer (or bothered to ask questions), so youll make an impression.

Muddy the waters by suggesting a few options they may not have considered. This will make it more difficult for them to base their decision on price alone.

Browsers: Find out, by using carefully chosen, closed-ended questions, what gave them the urge to contact you.

What price range would interest them? Would they be traveling with a friend? A spouse? Children?

Your questions will help them focus their thoughts and may help them realize that theyre serious, after all, about buying a vacation through you.

Marc Mancini is an industry speaker and consultant who teaches at West Los Angeles College.

Five Things

Giving something extra to your cruise clients

1. Surprise travelers with gift baskets in their staterooms. We always give clients gift baskets with soda and snack items, said Jeff Gordon, president of the Gordon Group, a Davie, Fla.-based travel agency specializing in high-end cruises. There are, of course, people who are price-driven, but there is also a good portion of the population who would rather have the added value, caring and concern, he said. We add loyalty through value-adds rather than rebating.

2. During the holidays, add extra items to the gift baskets. In addition to the standard soda and snack items, the agency adds other goods that have the Gordon Group logo. Items might include water bottles with pop-up tops, pens, diaries and fold-up canvas bags.

3. Present clients with their cruise documents in an inventive fashion. Gordons agency uses bank deposit zipper bags, which he says are a big hit with the agencys customers because they can be used later on for other purposes. The bags feature the agencys logo, toll-free number and the line, Thank you for sailing with us. Sturdy luggage tags with the companys logo are also included in the packet.

4. Send clients bon voyage cards before they sail. The Gordon Group sends upscale cards on linen paper that say: With all your dreaming, planning and packing, the time has come to get going. We hope your vacation is all you dreamed it would be -- wonderful adventures and memories. Bon voyage.

5. Call clients when they return from their vacations. Gordons wife, Karen, who runs the administrative side of the business, calls the client. This way, the agency can ensure that the client was pleased with the booking agent as well as the cruise experience, Gordon said. We really want to hear about everything, including the good and the bad. We need to know if theres anything that needs to be corrected, Gordon said.

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