The art of travel planning

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Whatever you do, dont call Admiral Travel Gallery a travel agency, because as far as its owners are concerned, it isnt -- certainly not in the traditional sense.

Malaka Hilton, who co-owns the agency with her husband, Ryan Hilton, has worked tirelessly to make Sarasota, Fla.-based Admiral distinct.

In the past, people have viewed travel agents as order takers, Hilton said. We decided years ago that we didnt want to be classified that way because we do so much more.

One way Admiral differentiates itself is in the ambience of its new offices, which are located in the heart of the citys arts district. In effect, said Hilton, Admiral wants to showcase the art of travel.

We moved into this gorgeous new office with leather walls and sliding glass doors, said Hilton.

Custom photography and original artwork and handcrafts are on display. In December, Admiral will feature its first of an ongoing series of gallery opening and wine tastings.

Admiral employees are never referred to as travel agents but as travel professionals and travel specialists.

Our vision is to employ a person who specializes in every destination in the world, said Hilton.

One of Hiltons areas of expertise is Egypt, a destination that is like a second home to her, in large part because she has traveled there at least once a year since the age of four with her Egyptian-born father and Yugoslav mother.

I can do things for my customers that nobody else can, she said, adding that she hosts barbecues at family members homes in the Pyramid district and offers other events and activities that would be extremely difficult for anyone but an insider to arrange.

Her husband, whom she met at a South Africa game reserve where he worked as a guide, serves as the agencys Africa and safari specialist. While she oversees the personnel side of the business, he handles Admirals sophisticated technology.

Both are group experts who take travelers on unique itineraries. Admiral partners with a host of cultural institutions that provide its customers with insider access to regional and international events, such as the Cannes Film Festival and Chinese New Year.

My husband and I have made a conscious effort to get our name out locally through charity events and such cultural institutions as the Sarasota Film Festival and the Oslo Theater Company. Cultural institutions have figured out that they can raise a lot of money through travel, said Hilton. And Ive stepped in and said, Id like to be your travel company of choice.

Admiral also partners with high-profile individuals, having formed working partnerships with such luminaries as designer Salvatore Ferragamo and chef Roy Yamaguchi, founder of 30 Roys restaurants in the U.S. mainland, Hawaii and on Guam.

Exclusive product is our niche, and its very important to us, said Hilton. We cater to those travelers who want the wow factor.

Ferragamo will escort an Admiral group next year on a tour exploring Italys Tuscany region. The itinerary will include a private tour of Florence and the Ferragamo Store and Museum. It will also feature a visit to his familys winery in Tuscany as well as the exclusive Il Palio horse race in Sienna.

Yamaguchi will join an Admiral group next year on a South African Winelands and safari tour, which includes a private dinner with the chef at the Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town.

When I meet people I like to envision how we can do business together, and then I just start brainstorming, said Hilton. Sometimes it works and appeals to the people I talk to and meet, and sometimes it doesnt. I make sure its not only appealing to me and the future of my business, but to theirs as well.

Hilton said that creative thinking, impeccable service and 24/7 accessibility are what draws new customers and marketing partnerships.

My cell phone is printed on my business card, and I keep my cell phone on all the time, said Hilton. My customers know that no matter where they are or what time it is, they can call me.

Hilton said success will come to travel counselors who couple creativity with flexibility. The ones who will succeed have to be dynamic and willing to adapt to change, she said. This is a dynamic industry, and its always changing.

TravelWeekly.com wants to hear your story. Think youre a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Claudette Covey at [email protected], and please include your agency name, agency location, telephone number and e-mail address.

Perfect Itinerary

A tour of three Baltic cities

Charmaine Mirza, who specializes in custom travel at Tampa-based Exeter International, offered this five-night Baltics itinerary. The itinerary is a portion of a seven-night vacation.  This itinerary would appeal to travelers who are interested in slightly off-the-beaten-path, historical destinations, said Mirza. Travelers visit Tallinn, Estonia; Riga, Latvia; and Vilnius, Lithuania.

Day 1

Travelers check into the Three Sisters Hotel, located in the heart of Old Tallinn. A walking tour of Tallinn, a city of ancient castles, stone towers and medieval streets, takes clients through the heart of Old Tallinn, Toompea Castle, St. Marys Cathedral and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Other highlights include visits to the town square with its Gothic and Baroque town hall and the citys guild houses. The site for dinner is Restaurant Maikrahv in the Old Town.

Day 2

Travelers private driver and guide takes them outside Tallinn to visit Kadriorg Park and Palace. Founded by Peter the Great, Kadriorg Palace now houses the National Gallery of Arts Foreign Art Collection. They dine at Restaurant Gloria, which Mirza said feels like a step back in time to the 1930s. The restaurant, which serves international fare, is known to have the best wine list in Tallinn.

Day 3

A four-plus hour drive transports travelers to Riga, where they check into the Grand Palace Hotel. Travelers can spend the afternoon taking in Rigas Art Nouveau architecture and St. Peters Church, one of the oldest in the city and an excellent example of Gothic architecture. The Grand Palace Hotel in Riga, Latvia.Other areas to explore include the Riga castle complex and the medieval Jurgendstil District. Clients dine at Restaurant Melnie Muki, an establishment popular with locals that is located in a medieval cloister.

Day 4

Travelers are driven to Vilnius, which dates to the fifth century B.C. During the approximately five-and-half-hour drive from Riga, they can stop at the 17th-century Rundale Palace. They check into the Stikliai Hotel.

Day 5

The day is reserved for a tour of Vilnius beautiful churches, the Gates of Dawn, Vilnius University, the Gediminas Castle Museum and the KGB Museum. The site for dinner is Restaurant Medininkai. Located in Old Town, it has a 16th-century courtyard and serves traditional dishes with a contemporary twist.

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 Covey at [email protected].

Hand In Hand

Boutique Escapes offers cruisers something special

Rich Skinner doesnt just sell cruises. He says he creates multidimensional travel experiences that are completely customized.

One way in which Skinner, co-owner of Cruise Holidays in Woodinville, Wash., makes this happen is by working with suppliers that bring those extra dimensions to the cruise experience.

One such company that Skinner works with regularly is London, Ontario-based Boutique Escapes, which specializes in pre- and post-cruise tours, shore excursions and FIT land vacations. We tell them our clients interests, and they set up everything, said Skinner.

The experiences are tailored to customers profiles, Skinner said, pointing to a recent trip that Boutique Escapes designed for his clients in Santa Margarita, Italy.

We booked the clients in a farmhouse, and every day theyd drive back [from sightseeing] in anticipation of what the chef was going to prepare for them, Skinner said.

When something goes wrong the company fixes the problem in a heartbeat, Skinner said.

We had customers who prepaid a Rome hotel, and there was no record of the prepayment, he said.

Skinner called Boutique Escapes on a Sunday, and within an hour, the problem was resolved.

The hotel day manager had forgotten to brief the night manager that the clients had prepaid, Skinner said, adding that the hotel provided the clients with a bottle of wine for the inconvenience.

Sharon Assis, who operates Boutique Escapes with her two sisters, Susan Lawrence and Sandy Velikonja, said agents are provided a complete program for their clients, be it a land tour or shore excursion.

We look after the client so the agent doesnt have to, she said.

The company, which has a longstanding relationship with Cruise Holidays franchisees, simply works toward creating out-of-the-ordinary travel experiences, said Assis. We want raving customers -- in the positive sense.

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

Daltons Corner

Airline posing as corporate travel agency

By John Dalton

Companies change directions to attract new customers. Sears gave up its catalog and now owns Kmart. Automobile dealers once sold one brand, such as Chevrolet or Ford; today, they sell a variety of cars, including U.S. and foreign brands, under one roof. The most recent travel company changing direction is United Airlines.

In an effort to emerge from bankruptcy with a running head start, United has decided to discard the marketing practices that it and other airlines have used for years and take a new approach. Its target market is small to midsize corporate accounts. Its strategy is to lure those companies to their new site, UnitedGoBusiness.com. Its home page lists the program savings, rewards and features (my comments are in parentheses):

  • Exclusive, up front discounts, up to 4% off published fares. (Will agencies have the same discounts in their GDSs?)

  • No transaction fees. (Didnt United tell agencies to charge fees when they eliminated commissions?)

  • No implementation fee. Unlike other corporate online booking tools. (Unlike progressive travel agencies offering online booking tools?)

  • Mileage Plus bonus miles -- 1,000 per booking. (Will the miles be given to the client when agencies book them on the site?)

  • Air, hotel and car inventories. Displays United and other airlines. (Is this an airline or a travel agency?)

  • Online exchange and cancel. (No phone calls?)

  • Compare fares. United and competitors. (Just like an agency GDS.)

  • Travel policy management. (An agency creation.)

  • Reporting. (Just like an agency.)

  • Redeem unused tickets (Wow, a new term for e-ticket tracking.)

  • Travel arranger. Allow employees to book on behalf of others. (A routine practice in agencies.)

  • Publish company messages. Real-time communications. (Agencies started this back in the 80s.)

  • Dedicated customer support. Supports your travelers 24/7. (With real people the way travel agencies have been doing forever?)
  • What an endorsement for all agencies serving corporations! An airline is finally admitting the travel agency model is much better than the airlines for attracting and serving business travelers.

    One would have thought an airline moving into this end of the travel business could have been more creative.

    It would have been nice if United had one original idea. Instead, it copied agency programs right down the line. I guess United cant break that match it mentality.

    United has two major objectives for moving in this new direction. The first is to dramatically reduce the booking fees it pays to the GDSs. United has achieved that by reducing its cost to about $2 per booking with its Web site and the help of Orbitz.

    It appears the second goal is to compete against airlines and agencies in the corporate arena. It will be interesting to see if United will go it alone.

    Just imagine what United could do if it teamed up with the corporate travel agency community and they worked together.    

    Let agencies provide their clients with the same discounts they will give on the United GoBusiness site. Allow agencies to give 1,000 bonus miles when their clients contact the agency and the agency books it on the new site. Make joint calls with the agencies that have been effectively closing accounts for years. 

    United has seen the light and understands the corporate travel agency programs and not the airlines are the choice of the business world.

    Lets hope United has the wisdom to work in concert with the corporate agency community.

    The airline has enough on its plate fighting off the growth of the low-cost carriers, negotiating with its unions, facing the erosion of its market share and, of course, finding a way to be profitable.

    The last thing in the world United needs is to go head to head -- alone -- against the most creative, aggressive, tenacious and profitable group in the travel industry -- the corporate travel management agencies.

    John Dalton is an industry consultant, trainer and speaker. He can be reached at (336) 431-1596 or by e-mail at [email protected].

    Five Things

    Selling more tour products

    1. Know the product. There are an array of tours and packages. Variety and choice are the name of the tour game these days -- variety in types of tours, prices, activities and destinations, said Hank Phillips, president of the National Tour Association. Success in this vibrant market dictates that agents need to be students, developing a strong understanding of whats out there that will appeal to their clients needs and interests.

    2. Be a business developer. Dont just wait for the phone to ring, especially with group tours. Look for clients in the form of local organizations, clubs and churches, Phillips said. Retailers should target groups that represent special interests or activities that can translate into special-interest tours and packages.

    3. Know your client. The best travel experiences are those that connect with the travelers interests, preferences and their imaginations, said Phillips. When selling tours, he said retailers need to drill down into what the client is looking for, what he or she likes and doesnt like and any special needs. Often the best salesperson is the one who asks the most questions.

    4. Communicate. Personal relationships can fail due to a lack of communication. Agents and operator relationships can meet the same fate for the same reason, said Phillips. Maintain contact with the tour operators you work with. Find out whats new and whats hot in what the operator is offering. Communication with the operator helps the agent understand how the tour company operates and what information is needed from or about the client. When a tour is booked, dont delay in communicating the needed information to the tour operator.

    5. Loyalty. In todays business world, too often there is too little loyalty, Phillips said. If you find a tour company that does good work and provides good value, stick with that company, he said. Travel agents and tour operators share a longstanding and mutually beneficial relationship, said Phillips. Due to challenges that both partners are experiencing, that relationship has never been more important than it is today. Keep the business flowing.

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