Sticking to a sales philosophy

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eff Gordon uses a simple philosophy that, when you think about it, can work in many businesses. It's worked well for him in his career as a stockbroker and continues to work in his career as a travel agent. Here it is: Never sell product. Sell yourself. And then deliver.

Gordon, president of the Davie, Fla.-based Gordon Group, said he made a promise to himself during his stockbroker career. "I pledged that I would never hustle anybody or sell something to somebody," he said. "I was going to sell myself. I knew that if I did it right, the ultimate payment would come."

When he opened his agency after retiring from the brokerage business in 1992, Gordon vowed to maintain the pledge and to focus exclusively on cruise vacations. He and his wife, Karen, who also is a former stockbroker, were avid cruisers who felt the service they received from travel agencies was less than stellar. Gordon was convinced he could do a better job.

He learned an important lesson that first year. "Because of my local involvement with organizations, I started booking groups of 500 at a time," he said, but at per diems that were less than desirable. "I talked to every one of those people as if they were a client buying a $50,000 cruise, which was not a smart thing to do financially."

Gordon quickly regrouped and rethought his business plan. "The key to success in business is going after a particular market," he said. "We decided we would market to a higher-end clientele who would appreciate what we did for them."

Gordon began targeting that upscale clientele by tapping into familiar areas, like his hometown of Chicago. He also got in touch with former colleagues and clients whom he knew from his days as a stockbroker. Then, by buying mailing lists that detail demographics and psychographics, he entered other pockets of the U.S. Gordon soon developed a nationwide business whose turnkey marketing approach was based on service. The initial thrust into affluent pockets has paid off; Gordon said virtually all of his business is now word of mouth.

Although Gordon still concentrates on groups, which account for half of his business, he has learned to manage his time more profitably. For instance, when he books large groups on contemporary ships, he does so during holiday periods -- when prices are at a premium. The Gordon Group books as many as 2,000 people on a variety of ships during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, he said.

The other half of the agency's business is higher-end FITs. This market segment virtually always books balcony accommodations and higher, Gordon said, which results in higher profits for the agency.

The way in which he services his clients is based, in large part, on how he was treated on incentive trips during his stockbroker days. "Did the brokerage firm really need to buy me a vacation?" Gordon said. "It's all about recognition, and that same psychology applies to my customers. They need to feel special."

He remembers those gifts well and how much he appreciated them. The agency always makes sure that a personalized gift pack is awaiting guests when they arrive at their staterooms. When they return, the agency is quick to call to ensure that all went well -- and to thank clients for their business.

To ensure the agency's service standards remain high, Gordon separates sales and administration. Karen Gordon runs the administrative side of the business with a staff of four, whose responsibilities include keeping track of group space, invoicing and air deviations.

"Without Karen, this whole thing would crumble," Gordon said. "We can get the best salespeople to schmooze, but you have to put together those 100 pieces of the puzzle."

Karen's department also is responsible for post-cruise follow-up -- including the important "welcome home" call. "In building client relationships, we go beyond just making the sale," he said. "The 'welcome home' calls are very valuable in cementing the relationship and obtaining future business."

On the sales side, the agency has four full-time salespeople, including Gordon. The full-time sales employees are not paid commissions. "I don't want my agents to think twice about what they should sell in terms of what will earn them money," said Gordon. "If they need to spend an hour with a client, they spend an hour with the client."

In the end, it's all about doing what's right for the customer, he said. Although Gordon has expanded his business every year -- the agency's annual volume is currently $6 million a year -- that expansion has always been calculated, he said. In Gordon's view, it's quality and integrity that count most.

"I do what my gut says," he said. "I do what's right. I could take this organization to 10 times its size in sales if I wanted to run it differently, but that's not my business model."

The Perfect Itinerary
Day trips, dining in Nova Scotia

rish Chandler, an agent at Alexandria, Va.-based MacNair Travel -- and a Canada specialist and Newfoundland native -- designed a driving trip through Nova Scotia. "What's so great about this trip is you can do as much or as little as you want -- and the scenery is breathtaking," she said.

Clients will spend the first two nights of their trip in Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia.Day 1

Clients arrive in Halifax, Nova Scotia's capital. They spend two nights at the centrally located Citadel Halifax Hotel. Travelers visit the Citadel National Historic Site, which offers spectacular views of Halifax and the Halifax Public Gardens. In the evening, clients dine at the Five Fishermen, which, as its name implies, specializes in seafood.

Day 2

Travelers embark on a drive along Nova Scotia's craggy south coast to the picturesque fishing village of Peggy's Cove. They visit the William E. deGarthe Memorial Provincial Park to see the artist's massive granite sculpture, a memorial to fishermen and their families. Back in Halifax, they have lunch at the Little Fish restaurant. That evening, dinner is at McKelvie's, a seafood restaurant located in a renovated fire hall on the waterfront.

Day 3

Clients depart for a three-hour drive to Baddeck, during which they'll be treated to sweeping views of the Bay of Fundy. They will check into Baddeck's Inverary Resort. "Its central location permits day trips by car to all parts of the island," said Chandler.

Travelers visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, which houses a collection of the inventor's earliest inventions, photos and mementos. Dinner is at the Inverary's Lakeside Cafe, a casual waterfront restaurant that offers views of Baddeck Bay.

Day 4

Travelers depart for a scenic, hour-long drive along the Cabot Trail on their way to Cape Breton. "I'm truly awed every time I travel there," Chandler said. They check into the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish. The lodge, which is perched on a cliff, offers guests panoramic views of the sea and Cape Smokey. That evening, clients dine at the Keltic's Purple Thistle Dining Room.

Day 5

Travelers visit the 18th-century Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park. Visitors can meander through period homes, exhibits, streets and the waterfront. That evening, guests dine at the Keltic's casual Atlantic Restaurant.

• • •

Hand in Hand
A SeaDream come true

hat started out as an effort to win a SeaDream Yacht Club sales contest transformed itself into something entirely more lucrative for Sewickley, Pa.-based Hyde Travel. The agency went from selling a tiny slice of SeaDream business to producing close to six figures in fourth-quarter 2003.

Hyde Travel was determined to win the promotion, which was designed for Virtuoso agencies. The agency whose bookings produced the highest net revenue from Sept. 2 to Dec. 31 would win a Segway Human Transporter, an electric-powered, two-wheel vehicle that SeaDream guests can use as transportation when in port.

"We're always going to sell what's good for clients," said Diane Viall, a travel counselor at Hyde, "but if it's a good product -- and there's a good contest -- it makes it even more exciting."

Lucille DePerro, SeaDream's director of business development, was there for Viall and the agency's president, Linda Hedin, every step of the way. Viall and Hedin had worked with DePerro extensively when she was at another company.

"They were really motivated," said DePerro. "They had a limited amount of information on selling us, but because of our past relationship I knew they had great potential clients."

DePerro and SeaDream staff helped the agency overcome logistical issues. For example, Viall had a potential sale to a nine-member, three-generational family. "That was a real challenge," DePerro said. "The family couldn't depart on the day the ship was supposed to leave because of school conflicts" but joined the cruise two days in.

The clients also had myriad questions and concerns about virtually every aspect of the vacation. Viall worked with DePerro and other SeaDream staffers to walk the clients through every step of the sale.

They booked and sailed. More importantly, they loved it and are thinking about chartering one of the yachts next year, said Viall.

Hyde Travel won a SeaDream promotion. Above, the SeaDream II.In the end, Hyde Travel was given the option of three awards: the Segway, equivalent cash value of the Segway or Sea-Dream vacations. The agency didn't hesitate to choose the vacations.

"They wanted the opportunity to learn more about SeaDream firsthand to continue to develop more sales," said DePerro.

"We can't wait to go," Hedin said.

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

• • •

Turen's Tips
Turning an 'Eye' to agencies

ne of my favorite television series is Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." So I was wondering what would happen if the boys stopped in, unannounced, at several randomly selected travel agencies to perform a quick architectural/design makeover:

"People -- I don't see any visuals -- just what is it that makes this store attractive? Shouldn't a joint promoting travel be sort of, duhhhh, interesting?"

"This carpeting is amazing -- I didn't think gold shag was still a hot color. Would you mind terribly if we ripped it all out and started with a concrete floor?"

"Your furniture is so utilitarian. Your clients must love coming in here. I'll bet we know where you got it. Did a Greyhound bus terminal recently close in the neighborhood?"

Richard Turen."A desk with two facing chairs for clients. Again your creative side is coming out. But doesn't this seating arrangement sort of remind you of your fourth-grade classroom? The person sitting behind the desk is the authority figure -- no, no, no. All wrong. You want couches and chairs where everyone is equal. And that Wal-Mart throw rug is nice, but we're going to need a Persian if we're going to be selling Abercrombie & Kent."

"Imitation plants! And do you sell imitation vacations?"

"Oh look at the little Tiki man. How 1950s. Maybe we could fix him up with that wooden Canadian Mountie on your bric-a-brac shelf."

"Yipes. This bathroom needs to be condemned. You actually let clients in there? How about some artwork and a box filled with soaps you've borrowed from hotels all over the world?"

"The hard-rock radio station you have on is really super. I'm sure your clients booking Seabourn Cruise Line are enjoying the mood you've established. I'm not certain that playing Michael Jackson is going to stimulate your Disney sales. You know they've invented these things called CD changers."

"The look of those tan file cabinets lining the left wall. Fabulous. Particularly if you want your first-time visitors to think they're walking into an Army-Navy store."

"Oh, we so love the uniforms. They're all the same yet they're all different. I know that I want to book a $30,000 vacation with someone dressed in one of Al Sharpton's old jogging suits. Let's do what our parents did, just for fun. Let's dress up for work just to show our clients a modicum of respect."

Industry consultant Richard Turen owns the vacation planning firm Churchill and Turen, Ltd., based in Naperville, Ill. A 23-year industry veteran, he has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's "Best Agents" list since the list began in 2000. He is at work on his third book, a game plan for delivering extraordinary service in a retail environment.

• • •

5 Things
To help retailers tap into the bridal market

1. Look at this market in the broadest possible sense. "The bridal market is a natural for the agency community, but many retailers make the mistake of only going after the honeymoon," said Bob Stalbaum, an industry marketing consultant. "Destination weddings now account for 14% of all marriage ceremonies - and bachelor/bachelorette party trips are becoming all the rage."

2. Don't sell cheap. When selecting a honeymoon or wedding destination, price is not the key driver. "Most honeymooners view their honeymoon and wedding as the trip of a lifetime, and they are more concerned with getting what they want than with price," said Stalbaum. "Find out what your clients desire, then offer them a trip designed to help them fulfill their dreams."

3. Promote yourself as a specialist. To be effective in reaching this market, advertise yourself as a destination wedding and/or honeymoon specialist. Highlight your expertise in ads, in your storefront window and through press releases, Stalbaum said.

4. Whatever segments of the market you decide to target, make the commitment to communicate with that segment on a consistent and ongoing basis. "My turnkey marketing campaign for the bridal market consists of seven different communications," Stalbaum said. First, approach newly engaged couples and ask them to consider a destination wedding as an alternative to a traditional wedding. Then, about eight months out, start promoting your services to book the honeymoon. Three or four months out, switch the focus to the bachelor/bachelorette destination party. "I even market to the parents of the bride and groom a few weeks before the wedding and suggest that they consider a vacation after the wedding to help them rejuvenate after the stress of the wedding," Stalbaum said.

5. Have fun. "Clever headlines, special envelopes and paper and a few tasteful inclusions almost always make the reader remember the agency, which positions it as the logical source for all romance-related bookings," Stalbaum said.

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