The slippery slope that led Ken DeMatteo from his former career at a teacher into the travel industry in 1982 was, in fact, a ski slope. At the time, DeMatteo had been teaching for 17 years and indulging his passion for skiing by running the high school ski club.

Now the president of Sports Travel International, a division of Globetrotter Travel Management in Olney, Md., DeMatteo is known for arranging trips for sports fans that enable them to rub elbows with some of the biggest names in college coaching.

When contemplating his 23-year journey in the industry, DeMatteo remembers the ski trip that started it all.

I was planning to take the kids to Utah for a spring break ski trip, and one of my students had an uncle who was opening a travel agency, he said.

DeMatteo booked through him and soon began bringing in more business as his interest in travel grew. He eventually became on outside agent.

Then, when he could no longer keep all his professional balls in the air, DeMatteo took the plunge and became a full-time travel agent focusing on wholesale ski programs.

Like his entry into travel, the switch to college sports began serendipitously.

We used to handle an account for the company that did the highlights show for the Notre Dame football team, he said.

Inspired by the show, DeMatteo contacted former Notre Dame head basketball coach Digger Phelps and asked him to lead a golf tour in Ireland in exchange for a free trip. DeMatteo publicized the trip through an ad during the highlights show.

The next day was Saturday, so we decided to go into the office to see if anyone had called, he said. The phone was ringing off the hook.

DeMatteos niche took off, and pretty soon ski travel took a backseat as he forged relationships with other big-name coaches.

I had done a tour with basketball coach Rick Pitino [when he was at the University of Kentucky], and he wanted to take the team to Italy. He asked me if I could do it, and I said I could, but I didnt really have a clue how to put the trip together, he said.

DeMatteo did his homework and began the laborious process of trying to set up games with Italian professional teams, a process he considers daunting even years later.

The facilities overseas for sporting events tend to be of a lower standard than American athletes are used to. The lighting is not as high-tech, and the officiating tends to be biased, DeMatteo said.

Having said that, DeMatteo said the coaches and players take the hiccups more or less in stride, and the trips have been hugely successful because -- and here is where DeMatteo separates himself from other travel agents who arrange team travel -- he invites the fans along.

Kentucky fans are very fanatic, and we had 150 on that first tour because these were people who couldnt get tickets to see the team at home, he said.

Since then, the list of former and present coaches DeMatteo has lured to be tour hosts include Mike Montgomery, Bill Curry, R.C. Slocum, Steve Lappas, Herb Sendek, Gerry Faust, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz.

The destinations have been diverse, from Venice, London and Melbourne, Australia, to prime golf destinations in Ireland and Scotland.

While DeMatteo admits that his niche would not be easy for most travel agents to duplicate, particularly without strong ties to a university sports program, he does offer tips for retailers interested in sports travel.

When creating tours, especially for the uninitiated, he suggests finding a strong partner.

Theres no point in reinventing the wheel, DeMatteo said. If youre putting together a ski trip, it just makes sense to work with a ski tour operator.

Finding discount air and hotel rooms would be hard to do on ones own, plus operators have in-depth knowledge of the destination, said DeMatteo.

He also suggests designating someone in the agency to be the expert on the sport in question and start with something simple. Golf vacations, for example, can be pretty straightforward when working with a hotel that will help secure tee times, he said.

Once the tour is organized, market aggressively, DeMatteo said. I have my own mailing list that Ive compiled over the years, but I also set up a table at all the games.

Agents might consider getting plugs on sports radio shows, attending sports banquets and sending out newsletters to fans, he said.

Finally, DeMatteo said, agents need to know how to manage group travel before thinking about specializing.

They need to be able to create brochures, do the accounting and promoting and prepare the group for travel with luggage tags, travel documents and currency conversion charts, he said. If they can do that, they are already ahead of the game.

TravelWeekly.com wants to hear your story. Think youre a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Felicity Long, Agent Life editor, at [email protected], and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address in the message and put Agent Life in the subject line.

Perfect Itinerary

A family adventure in Costa Rica

Lauren Goldenberg, a graduate of ASTAs family travel specialist program and owner of the Family Traveler in St. Augustine, Fla., traveled the world for many years before making travel a career seven years ago. Goldenberg specializes in designing customized travel for families with children. The following is a portion of a 16-day family tour to Costa Rica, created in conjunction with local tour operator Horizontes.

Days 1 and 2

Travelers are picked up at the Hotel Bergerac in San Jose for a boat trip to Tortuguero, named for the giant tortugas or sea turtles that nest on the beaches in this region every year from early March to mid-October. Families will explore the area on the canals that run the length of the park. Travelers check in to the Pachira Lodge in Tortuguero, where they will stay for two nights. Their stay includes transportation, lodging, entrance fees, tours, all meals and a guide.

Day 3

Travelers transfer by boat to the dock, then by land to the Sueno Azul Resort in Sarapiqui. They spend the afternoon on a private guided walk in La Selva Biological Station, where they can experience and learn about tropical ecosystems. About 250 researchers from 26 countries come to the facility each year.

Day 4

Travelers are picked up in the morning for a whitewater rafting excursion on the Sarapiqui River. The trip traverses Class 3 rapids (moderate, irregular waves) on a river that stretches through lush vegetation. The area is home to hummingbirds, toucans, woodpeckers, parrots and scores of other native bird species. The afternoon is devoted to an exploration of the Arenal Volcano, followed by a visit to the Hidalgo Family Hot Springs. Also known as Ecotermales, the springs feature four hot spring pools within the tropical forest, which is teeming with many species of birds native to the region. A home-cooked dinner is included. Travelers transfer to the Arenal Observatory Lodge in La Fortuna.

Day 5

Travelers spend the morning horseback riding at La Fortuna waterfall, set in the rain forest overlooking the town.Travelers get an up-close view of many types of birds during a trip to the Hanging Bridges. After riding horses, they can take a dip in the pools at the base of the waterfall. The afternoon is devoted to a trip to the Hanging Bridges for a guided nature walk. Located in front of the Arenal Volcano, the trails and 15 bridges give families an up-close look at the birds, flowers and the lush vegetation of the rain forest.

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 to [email protected] with Perfect Itinerary in the subject line.

Hand In Hand

Hawaii specialist gives thumbs-up to activities site 

If you need more proof that the Internet is not the enemy, consider the case of DJM Travel & Cruise in Chicago. CEO Dennis Miller doesnt just book air and hotel for his Hawaii-bound clients, he makes a significant portion of his commissions on activities booked on www.hawaiifun.org.

The site is the research and booking engine of the Activities & Attractions Association of Hawaii, or A3H, a nonprofit organization that features about 200 activities and attractions statewide.

Hawaiifun.org is an outstanding product, especially now that it has an interface booking engine, Miller said. We are putting together a big See Hawaii marketing project where were going to feature the site.

Agents select a requested activity and date, check availability and make a booking. They receive 15% commission on the activities, which include helicopter tours and sunset dinner cruises.

We are paid by membership dues for the most part, and our goals are to make the industry efficient and expand the distribution panel, said Toni Marie Davis, executive director of A3H, explaining that the organizations focus is on prearrival bookings.

Davis said agents booking activities are e-mailed a confirmation at the same time clients receive personalized e-tickets via e-mail.

Their new system is live, so it shows last-minute availability, and it displays a complete description of the activity, Miller said. That way, if a client has questions, the information is right there.

Another plus is that commissions are tracked automatically. The vendors are really good about getting that check in the mail usually within seven days of the end of the tour, Miller said.

DJM Travel & Cruise has an 80-20 leisure-corporate ratio. Miller said he uses the site to book activities for meeting attendees.

Not only does the product allow us to make additional revenue, but it provides the kind of concierge-level service we like to give our clients, he said.

Hand in Hand highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to [email protected] with Hand in Hand in the subject line.

Turens Tips

Hit em where they are

By Richard Turen

One of the reasons I still love going to work is the abundance of new, creative approaches to sales that are still waiting to be utilized by the retail community. These are exciting times, and we are seeing the emergence of a new, affluent, somewhat younger clientele that is less likely to be influenced by traditional, heavy-handed, price-oriented advertising.

But there is one approach that seems to work well with both the retired and the still-working affluent consumer that is truly different. I call this client cluster soft marketing (CCSM). I hope you will consider adding it to your repertoire.

The essence of CCSM is to find the clients where they are, where they appear, instead of in their homes or at work. The reasoning behind this approach is simple: You may be reaching them as a truly captive audience, without the confusion of a mailbox full of thinly veiled advertising.

Direct mail doesnt work for time-stressed people in dual working households. Our clients dont have much time to carefully sift through their mail before beginning dinner. Bills, personal letters and magazines get saved, and usually everything else gets tossed.

But there is a better way. Reach the clients where they are, when you have their full attention.

And dont kill them with ads. Instead, smother them with your precious knowledge and advice. A personalized newsletter, free of advertising, that is thoughtfully written with honest advice would be a welcome addition to any number of client cluster locations.

Here are just a few places and approaches you might consider:

  • Bookstores: Your newsletter or magazine could feature travel book reviews among its pages.

  • Physicians offices: You may be surprised at how much doctors will appreciate newsletters that are free of advertising for their waiting-room patients. But your name, address and phone number will always appear, and thats all you need.

  • Supermarkets: This is a big one, if you can pull it off. So you are going to need a hook. Try devoting some portion of your newsletter to dining and food markets you have experienced during your travels. This could help increase, for instance, the sale of more exotic produce.

  • Hair salons and spas: You have a perfect audience with a bit of time on their hands.
  • Your newsletter cover can be personalized for every potential client cluster location. This costs the local business nothing and helps forge a partnership between your agency and the place where potential clients gather.

    Most of you belong to a consortium or marketing organization.  Get them to customize publications you may already be receiving for the client cluster locations. Approach car dealerships, credit unions and banks, among others. They would all love to have a quality publication with their name on it at no cost. All you are looking for is proper distribution.

    And if you really want to hit a home run think travel newsletter plus skim latte, grande.

    Industry consultant Richard Turen owns the vacation planning firm Churchill and Turen, based in Naperville, Ill. An industry veteran of nearly 25 years, he has been named to Conde Nast Travelers Best Agents list since it began in 2000.

    Five Things

    Increasing your business via public relations

    1. Generate buzz. The first step, according to Margie Fisher, president of Zable Fisher Public Relations in Boca Raton, Fla., is to create a pitch designed around a topical event. Fisher extrapolated her suggestions for Travel Weekly from her Do-It-Yourself Public Relations Kit, available at www.zfpr.com. The Oscars are in March, so why not come up with a mock Oscar package, where clients spend three days in Hollywood, stay at a fancy hotel and get pampered by a hair and make-up stylist? she suggested. The point is not so much to sell the package but to get media attention.

    2. Publish an e-newsletter. This is a low-cost tool that enables agents to be in touch with clients or potential clients in a non-disruptive way, Fisher said. She suggests that agents promote not only travel specials but also insider tips that offer clients some value. Even if they arent interested in the topic you are writing about, they are frequently being reminded of you.

    3. Become involved in a good cause. The whole point is to build relationships with people, so its critical to find a cause that really interests you, Fisher said. She suggests joining a committee with the eventual goal of becoming a board member. Donating a vacation to a fund-raising event is a good way to get publicity.

    4. Conduct free seminars and workshops. Pick a catchy topic, like how to travel in style to Europe on a dime, Fisher said. Offer an hour or two of information, but not enough for attendees to book travel on their own. You are giving people a chance to meet you and want to use you as a travel agent, said Fisher.

    5. Network effectively. Fisher suggests arriving early at a meeting or event and asking someone you know to introduce you to people. Give people a reason to contact you: Instead of dispensing your business card, hand out your newsletter, for example, and make use of your down time to make contacts, she said.

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