Small start, large results

It seems the woods are full of travel agents making money by focusing on upscale leisure travel. In 1993, when Pamela Hurley Moser was opening her two-person agency -- Hurley Travel Services in Portland, Maine -- she wanted to be just like them.

Instead, Hurley's agency nowadays is staffed with 40 employees and sells 70% of its business to corporate clients, with incentive and leisure travel making up the other 10% and 20%, respectively. Pamela Hurley Moser started Hurley Travel Services in 1993 with only two employees; now she has 40.

So what happened?

"I started the company as a concierge leisure boutique agency with a high-end clientele, but I quickly realized that corporations also wanted this concierge service, so I made the shift," she said.

The strategy worked, Moser said, so much so that she recently opened a second office in Mount Desert Island in eastern Maine.

Here are some of her other winning tactics:

  • Mean business. "We run the company like a business, and we have always operated from a three- to five-year business plan."
  • Get help. "So many companies think they can do it all, but we are not afraid to outsource for help with strategic planning, both from industry and business sources."
  • Think small. "Clients still do not realize how large we are. We are small enough to offer the personal service business travelers were getting from mom-and-pop agencies, but big enough to afford better systems and infrastructure."
  • Opt for quality. "In a typical corporate agency, you have to have many accounts to make a profit, but the clients suffer because they can't get through to the agent, and the agent doesn't have time to offer quality service." Moser's solution was to lower the client-to-agent ratio and keep it steady.
  • Charge fees. "We charged a $5 per ticket fee long before the commission caps, and although they've grown to a slightly higher level than average, my clients would rather pay ... to have their agent available to them, which in turn allows them to save hundreds of dollars long term."
  • Aim for happy agents. "We've never had a travel consultant leave for a local competitor. All are paid above the industry norm, and receive bonuses and profit sharing as a team."
  • Other benefits include a matching 401K plan, health and dental benefits, a generous vacation policy, an annual employee bonding fam trip and "a gorgeous office."

    -- Felicity Long

    Air 'farepricers' on the Web

    Pamela Hurley Moser is not one to ignore the Internet. In addition to having a Web site for her agency -- www.travelexperts.com -- Moser created a site at www.farepricers.com, designed to save corporate travelers on published airline itineraries that exceed $1,000.

    "We have an auditing team that searches to find unpublished, lower options, using our network of resources," she said.

    This is the way it works: Web users fill out a form on line with the flight number and the price they were quoted. They ask Farepricers to look at it with an eye on beating the price.

    The service is free, Moser said, and participants are under no obligation to purchase the air fare from the site. In addition to having a website for her agency, Moser created a site at www.farepricers.com, designed to save corporate travelers on airline itineraries.

    "Most do," Moser said, adding the company can book air but is not a full-service travel agency. If the clients request additional arrangements, such as accommodations or car rental, they are referred to Hurley Travel.

    "We try to use the itinerary the clients want, but we also look at other options if it will save them money," she said.

    Moser said the service is available to agents, who can buy discounted tickets and mark up the price while still saving the client money.

    "Sometimes it takes us 45 minutes to an hour to find the information, which is something a busy corporate travel agent doesn't have time to do," Moser said.

    Setting goals

    Q:Do I really need to set formal goals for my employees?

    A: Even in a small agency with one or two employees, setting goals will have an impact on job efficiency. Employees need to be clear about their duties and the expected results. A formal goal clarifies an expectation and specifies a result.

    Setting goals doesn't have to be a big production. Involve your employees in the process by asking them to describe their job tasks and responsibilities. This creates a feeling of ownership for the employees and gives them a sense that you're aware of all that they do. Next, tell them your goals for the agency and ask them how they think they can be accomplished. Dan McManus.

    It is important to write out the goals so that you each have a copy. Build incentives into the attainment of each goal. If one of your goals is to increase hotel sales by 25% within a certain period, attach a reward to be given when the goal is met.

    Goals should involve a team effort. If the agency has more than one employee, construct the goals so that the employees don't compete, but work together to reach success. Jobs and business conditions change over time, so review the goals often.

    Goals can be used to help an underperforming employee. Make sure the individual agrees to the goal and tie it to some form of positive reinforcement.

    Q:Is leasing equipment basically the same as buying it on credit?

    A: No. When you lease something the lessor still has ownership. You are paying only to use the item for a certain time period. Think of it as an extended rental. You usually can purchase the item for market value or less at the end of the lease term.

    It's certainly a viable financing alternative, especially when you're looking at high-priced equipment, such as a full-service copy machine, computer or automobile. Another advantage is in the "balance sheet." A bank or other business looking to extend you credit won't view leased equipment as a debt, even though it is a liability.

    Former agency owner Dan McManus is president of the McManus Group publishers of business management advice. Contact him at [email protected].

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