Some great, unsolicited PR

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In its first six months of operation, AlfresCo Alliance, the Research Triangle, N.C.-based corporate adventure firm founded by travel agency owner Nancy Johnson, had specific trips written up in two prestigious publications, the New Yorker and the national business magazine Fast Company.

How did Johnson (also featured in a recent issue of Agent Life ) get such good public relations so fast?

Basically, through a combination of excellent connections and timing. Johnson, the owner of Johnson Travel, also based in Research Triangle, hasn't yet begun reaching out to the media. But the AlfresCo Alliance also includes seven well-known adventure travel companies with their own press connections. When writers at the New Yorker and Fast Company were researching the hot topic of corporate training adventures, they were eventually directed to AlfresCo.

The Fast Company piece, in the November issue (also available on the Web at www.fastcompany.com/online/29/toolbox.html), describes, in vivid detail, the white-water-rafting trip AlfresCo designed specifically for Altrec.com, a Bellevue, Wash.-based Internet outdoor-gear retailer.

Writer Todd Balf spells out exactly how an adventure travel trip can further corporate goals: "In Altrec's case, choosing a bad-ass white-water trip over, say, a breezy cycling tour of Sonoma's vineyards makes sense," since "in the marketplace, Altrec must navigate a minefield of known and unknown hazards," similar to what its execs will face on the trip, such as "10-foot-high waves."

Johnson, a big fan of the magazine Fast Company, said making its pages "totally lit my hair on fire." She was also pleased with the article's vivid you-are-there feel, which she felt would attract other corporate clients.

Johnson found the New Yorker article, published in a September issue of the magazine, which was devoted to the topic of adventure, less useful for her PR purposes, because it was more narrowly focused on the writer's own experience of the trip.

But she's still thrilled with her "unsolicited" press mentions.

"I like to believe we're capturing people's imaginations," she said.

Adventurous business model

Besides trying to provide a breath of "fresh air" for its clients by packaging corporate training adventures, the AlfresCo Alliance is a "new business model." It is a company comprising 10 "visionary" firms, according to founder Nancy Johnson.

Johnson's business card: Her title is Coordinated by Johnson and her partner, Seattle-based Tim Vanderhoof, a former travel agent, AlfresCo consists of seven separate adventure travel companies -- Backroads, Canadian Mountain Holidays, Lindblad Special Expeditions, Mountain Travel Sobek, Outdoor Adventure River Specialists, Off the Beaten Path and Triple Creek Ranch -- and three corporate training firms -- Project Adventure, Corporate Coach U International and the Marshall Group.

The difference here is the company follows a "co-petitive model," said Johnson.

"Sometimes you may need a core competency that would take your organization a long time to develop, so you partner with another firm that has it," she said.

Many of the "co-petitors" first bonded when they were preferred suppliers for the Navigator adventure travel program of the upscale consortium API.

To build further trust among its members, AlfresCo is taking some of the advice it doles out to corporations and is scheduling its own retreat. "If we're preaching it, we should be doing it, too," said Johnson.

A bad name game

A competitor recently opened an agency in a nearby city, across the state line, with the same name that our agency has had for 20 years. Can we stop this?

Dan McManus.Probably not. Even if you have incorporated the name in your state (thus preventing its use by any other business in your state) and you've been using it for 20 years (which gives you some common-law protection), you may not legally be able to stop a company in another state from using your name unless you've registered it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

If the competing agency can conduct business in your market, you should see a patent and trademark attorney right away. He or she will probably advise you to register your name with the U.S. Patent Office.

If the other agency has not already done this, you may then have legal rights to have it stop using the name because you are in the same market area. You might also have other rights, depending on the laws in your state and the neighboring state.

Recently, the cybercafe next door to my agency in the shopping center started promoting itself as a great place to book travel through Web sites. My lease prevents another agency from renting in the center. Can I stop this?

It's unlikely that the clause in your contract with the shopping center owner prohibits any tenant from carrying or promoting specific products. For example, should the cybercafe be allowed to prevent you from inviting customers to drop by for coffee?

Your best recourse may be to find a way to add value to the services offered by Web sites and join the cafe's promotion. Reciprocate by promoting the cafe as a place where your customers can meet with friends to plan travel.

Former agency owner Dan McManus is the publisher of the newsletter The Successful Worldspan Agent. Contact him at [email protected].

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