Straddling two niches

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et's face facts: It's no small feat for independent agencies to survive in large cities, and it gets harder every year. But one such independent, CRC Travel in Chicago, has managed to thrive by understanding and filling two separate but complementary niches.

"When we first opened in 1990, we felt there was a need for a high-end agency that would cater to the gay and lesbian and [general] leisure market that was not totally price driven -- something that we saw Chicago was lacking," said Peter Carideo, CRC's president. "We knew we'd never survive on $599 package business."

Basically, CRC has stayed true to its original plan to offer upscale products and destinations to upscale clients, be they straight or gay. "Most of the Chicago agencies that focused exclusively on gay and lesbian travel are gone now," said Carideo. "We were never gay and lesbian only," he said, adding that 20% of the agency's business comes from that market. "Gay and lesbian travelers don't necessarily want to be segmented, either."

Which is not to say that the agency doesn't constantly reinvent itself on one level or another to change with the times. "If something doesn't seem to be working, we get rid of it," Carideo said.

Before opening CRC, Carideo held sales and marketing positions with two tour operator firms, a large East Coast travel agency and a cruise line. As a supplier, "calling on agencies was an eye-opening experience," Carideo said. For instance, he was able to figure out which elements he wouldn't incorporate into his own agency: "I didn't want [clients] coming in to see clutter and posters taped to the walls -- or people smoking," he said.

Instead, he created a storefront agency decorated with original framed posters and custom-made furniture. There's even a bar, where agents can chat with clients over glasses of wine. "If somebody's dropping $50,000, they'd better feel like they're in a high-end hotel or company," said Carideo. "Image plays [an important role]."

Image, however, is more than skin-deep in the case of CRC Travel. Carideo makes sure that the elegant look of the office is matched by excellent service. "We answer the phone on the first ring. We call back when we say we will. We use words like 'my pleasure' and 'not a problem' -- even when it is."

But Carideo has learned to temper his service ethic with a healthy respect for what's profitable, too. "We are always prepared to turn business away if it doesn't fit the type of business that we're comfortable selling," he said -- such as an inexpensive package from a supplier whose quality Carideo hasn't verified. "We know when to say thanks but no thanks to a client asking us to do something," he said.

Carideo, whose agency produces between $6 million and $7 million in sales volume a year with a staff of six employees, learned a difficult yet valuable lesson from 9/11. "For two months [following the events of 9/11], I felt like we were bleeding cash," he said. "It forced me to look at every penny."

What Carideo found was that he needed to pay much more attention to managing small as well as large expenses. "You will always dissect $1,000, $2,000 and $5,000 expenditures," he said.

"The major expenses we always deliberate -- it's the smaller ones that don't seem to ever count until they have added up to a large number," said Carideo. "It's kind of like having a $100 bill -- once it's broken, it's gone."

Ninety percent of the agency's business comes from referrals. "We can pretty much qualify the client by the person who referred them," Carideo said. "We promote our services one client at a time. When someone calls to thank us for a job well done, we always ask that they refer us to one friend that might be in need of our services."

To promote travel to the gay and lesbian market, the agency makes use of direct mail and also advertises in benefit program booklets for fundraisers. Carideo was also noted as a gay-travel specialist when he became one of 125 retailers included in Conde Nast Traveler's fourth annual "Travel Pros" issue, published in August. He recently hired a public relations agency to help his agency capitalize on the coverage.

In the final analysis, Carideo has learned that laughter is an essential part of the workday. "We laugh every day," Carideo said, "and we thank God for the mute buttons on our phones. Nothing is so big a problem that it can't be fixed."

The Perfect Itinerary
Five relaxing days in Anguilla

loyd Cole, a travel consultant at New York-based Valerie Wilson Travel, designed a five-day itinerary to Anguilla for clients who love food, spa treatments -- and, most importantly, relaxation.

Day one

Clients rent a car, which they can pick up at the Anguilla airport. They'll drive to the 47-room Rendezvous Bay Hotel, which sits on one of the most magnificent beaches in the Caribbean, according to Cole.

"It's a family-run place that has a lot of warmth, style and good accommodations," he said. "It's one of the best deals and best-kept secrets in the Caribbean in terms of what it offers."

Clients can spend the rest of the day relaxing on the beach.

Day two

Clients have lunch at Smokey's on The Cove, which sits on the beach. "It's got a lot of local color and really good food," Cole said.

That evening, clients may want to sample the local nightlife at the Pumphouse, a former salt factory that has been transformed into a bar and restaurant that features live reggae music.

Day three

Clients sample the spa treatments at the CuisinArt Resort & Spa, a property that boasts its own hydroponics farm, where plants are grown in special solutions. Clients can spend the day at the resort, opting for tours of the farm or cooking classes.

For dinner, Cole recommended Blanchards, a casual yet very elegant restaurant that serves a mixture of Caribbean, Asian and Cajun cuisines.

Day four

Clients can take a day trip to St. Martin by catching a ferry to the island's Marigot Bay, which takes about a half hour. This is the French side of the island, with "some unusual shops and excellent French restaurants," said Cole.

Anguilla's Cap Juluca Resort, where clients can dine at Pimms, an upscale seafood restaurant blending Caribbean, European and Asian cuisines. That evening, clients can dine at Pimms, located in the deluxe Cap Juluca Resort. This candlelit restaurant overlooks the surf of Maunday's Bay and serves upscale seafood dishes that blend the cuisines of the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.

Day five

Clients sample the spa treatments at the Malliouhana Hotel, which recently opened a spa.

In the afternoon, they can take a boat ride to Prickley Pear Cay, a tiny, pristine island ideal for snorkeling and picnics.

The final dinner should be at the Cedar Grove Cafe at the Rendezvous Bay Hotel. This restaurant serves seafood and Caribbean-style cuisine, and diners can eat al fresco, facing the beach.

Hand in Hand
Going the extra mile

n a business world filled with uncertainties, Peter Friedman knows one thing for sure: If he books his clients at a Concorde hotel such as the Hotel de Crillon or Hotel Lutetia in Paris, they will receive service that is virtually guaranteed to exceed their expectations.

Friedman, a luxury sales consultant for Delray Beach, Fla.-based Unique Travel, said he discovered Concorde Hotels through the agency's consortium, Virtuoso. (About 15% of the Concorde's properties are preferred Virtuoso hotels.)

Friedman soon found that the hotel firm was willing to provide extras that would really stand out in the client's mind -- perks that went beyond those already available to Virtuoso agents, such as upgrades and attractive rates.

After Friedman made his first Concorde booking, Jeffrey Levine, Concorde's director of sales for the East Coast and Midwest, called on the agency, bringing key on-site hotel personnel with him.

Paris' Hotel de Crillon is a Concorde property.Friedman credits Levine and his on-site staff for upping the ante on the amenity front. For example, after Friedman mentioned that he had booked a cigar aficionado into the Crillon, the staff sent up cigars to the client's room, along with flowers and champagne.

Another client, who was in Paris for one night only, requested dinner at Jules Verne, the restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower. "That's a very hard reservation to get, particularly on short notice," said Friedman. The hotel ensured that the client got not only a table but a window seat.

A week before clients are scheduled to arrive at a Concorde hotel, Friedman sends an e-mail to them asking their precise time of arrival so they will be greeted personally at the door.

For his part, Levine believes Concorde's high service level simply makes good business sense. "We really work with the agents that produce business for us -- and they support us, as well."

In the end, Concorde subscribes to "the old-fashioned way of selling," said Levine, "which is building business based on relationships."

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

Marc My Words
'You want fries with that?'

e sell in a fiercely competitive environment today. But we're not the only ones: When McDonald's saw Burger King and Wendy's cutting into its sales, it immediately implemented a hard-to-beat tactic: the 99-cent Big Mac. But how can one possibly make a profit from loss leaders? And how are travel suppliers able to provide such low prices yet still make money?

The secret: The price cut isn't the whole tactic.

McDonald's was able to cut its Big Mac prices by training its staff to more aggressively cross-sell the real profit-generators: fries, shakes, large beverages and desserts.

Marc Mancini.It packaged several items into an entire meal selling for a few pennies less than the total price of those items bought individually. In this way, it could sell more of the profit-making items than customers might otherwise have purchased.

These same tactics are used by movie theater owners, who now focus on concession stand rather than ticket sales -- the high-priced (and lucrative) popcorn, candy and soft drinks that account for nearly all of a theater's profits.

Here's how travel agents can put this lesson to use: Promote great air fares but make money on everything else. Sell those extras.

As in other industries, it isn't your core product -- airline tickets -- that provides your agency with its best profit opportunities, even if you do charge fees. It's the "side dishes" -- those car rentals and stateroom upgrades, those precruise hotel stays -- that make the difference between a fragile profit and a solid one.

Your clients may still come to you for the best air fares, but your profitability depends upon your ability to make them aware of options they haven't considered.

Remember: When you offer the "extras," you're doing your clients a favor. It's very often the spectacular view from that stateroom veranda they'll remember forever, and thank you for.

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

5 Things...
Creating effective ads

1. Every ad should have a well-stated and defined objective. Agents should be clear on what they want to accomplish, according to industry marketing consultant Bob Stalbaum, president of Havertown, Pa.-based Strategies for Success. "How you write your ad will vary greatly on what your objectives are. Are you trying to generate new sales leads? Promote a new service? Or increase public awareness of your agency?" he asked.

2. Don't expect your ads to make the sale all by themselves. "A primary purpose of advertising and marketing should simply be to generate inquiries and phone calls," Stalbaum said. To catch the fickle consumer's attention, "create ads that are intriguing and eye-catching that use creative headlines and plenty of white space to help them stand out from the crowd," he said.

3. Measure the effectiveness of your ad. "You must insist that your agents ask callers how they heard about your company -- preferably at the beginning of the conversation," Stalbaum said. He swears that if agents follow this formula, they will know at the end of three or four months "where their marketing money is giving them the biggest bang for their buck."

4. Don't accept the first terms you receive from your chosen media, be it radio, TV or print. "Everything is open to negotiation," said Stalbaum. "If you are using an advertising vehicle for the first time, ask for a test rate." If that fails, go for an upgrade in ad size, free color instead of black and white, or favorable positioning.

5. Use ads to start marketing to potential clients. When your campaign lures prospects who call for information, send them a letter and some brochures. Even if there is no immediate sale, make sure you start a file on each prospect for repeated follow-ups. "Good sales and marketing dictates several follow-ups," said Stalbaum. "It's all part of the discipline required to succeed."

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