Much has been made of the fact that the vast majority of travel agents are women -- 83% in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- but does it automatically follow that agencies are any more family-friendly than other industries? In fact, issues over part-time employment, flexible hours and outside contractors are frequently the subject of debate and anxiety, judging from the popularity of seminars and literature on the subject.

Elaine Osgood, president of Atlas Travel International in Milford, Mass., takes a different approach.

Osgood is so clued in to the needs of her female employees that her agency was recently honored by Working Mother magazine as one of the nations 25 best small companies for which to work. In 2006, Osgood was also featured in the Worcester (Mass.) Business Journal as one of the business leaders of the year.

While appreciative of the recognition, Osgood says her management style is not so much innovative as, quite simply, a no-brainer.

Our agencys commitment to families came right from the beginning, she said. My background [prior to becoming a travel agent] was all about building relationships, and I continue to do that with my company.

Of the many flexible arrangements Osgood makes with her employees, the most popular is that she allows them -- 85% at last count -- to work from home. Her agency is staffed with about 65 full-time employees and a shifting number of part-time agents, and her business mix is about 80% corporate.

To agency owners who balk at the idea of letting so many employees work from home, Osgood says, We find we get more productivity from our folks. They dont have to put up with a long commute or worry about the kids at home, and because the word is out about us, its so much easier for us to find people to hire. I frequently get calls from agents wanting to work for us because of the benefits we offer.

Other family-friendly benefits include hosting companywide parties to which entire families, including pets, are invited and flown in from across the country to attend.

Osgood is also generous with maternity leave and time off for staff members in the process of adoption.Nor are her policies geared exclusively to women: She has a male employee currently on paternity leave.

Osgood celebrates each agents anniversary with the company by taking that person out to lunch and giving him or her a customized present, such as a weekend away or a gift certificate to a home-improvement store.

As to whether all this nurturing works, the proof is in the numbers: The agency reported a 65% increase in the number of transactions in 2005 over 2004, with the trend increasing in 2006, she said.

A former inner-city school teacher and child abuse investigator for the state of Massachusetts, Osgood turned her attention to the business world in the 1980s.

Because she lacked hands-on business experience, she researched franchise opportunities and took the plunge with Uniglobe.

At the outset, Osgood spent most of her time scaring up business, with the help of one trained travel agent who took care of anyone I could get to call us.

Lacking the capital for quick expansion, she built her business slowly with part-time staff who worked one at a time into full-time employees.

At a small company, you get to know your employees families, their pets and the issues we all have in our personal lives. People are not all about their work, and its important to allow them to be human.

For agents seeking to create a warmer corporate culture, Osgood suggests starting by asking employees what they need.

Ask how you can improve the work environment for them, then listen. They know what they need rather than you guessing at it.

The next step is to act on what youve heard.

The biggest mistake managers make is to say they will do something, then not do it,Osgood said. You lose all credibility.

If agents want to work at home, she suggests picking a few with proven track records until there is a comfort level with having people working from remote locations.

Finally, she said, be open to change. For someone who is used to managing people face to face, it takes a different style when you dont see the person all the time.

Think youre a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Felicity Long, Agent Life editor, at [email protected]. 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

River cruising the Loire Valley

Jean-Francois Dabrowski is the director of France Cruises, which operates as a tour operator and travel agency. France Cruises specializes in tours of France via its scenic waterways, as the companys name implies. Dabrowski mapped out a Loire Valley cruise aboard the 118-foot Meanderer, which holds just six guests in three air conditioned cabins, each with its own bathroom and shower. Travelers are transported to and from their Paris hotel to the vessel before and after the start of their journey.

DAY 1

After breakfast on board the Meanderer, travelers embark on an excursion to the chateau Vaux le Vicomte in Maincy, where The Man With the Iron Mask was filmed. The chateau, which has formal gardens and a collection of horse-drawn carriages, was the inspiration for the Palace of Versailles. After lunch onboard, travelers embark on a leisurely cruise to Montcresson, known for its picturesque surroundings.

DAY 2

The morning is spent on an excursion to the busy market town of Montargis to explore, browse for souvenirs and shop for confectionery from the famous Mazet Praline shop. Travelers spend the afternoon cruising to the village of Chatillon Coligny, which is presided over by a 12th-century chateau.

DAY 3

The morning excursion takes in a re-created 16th-century working farm and the Chateau of St. Fargeau, built on the site of a 10th-century fortress.Upon returning to the barge, the afternoon cruise visits Rognyles-Sept-Ecluses and includes a chance to walk the ancient staircase of locks of the old canal.

DAY 4

The daily excursion is a visit to the town of Gien. Set on the banks of the Loire River, the pretty town holds many attractions, including the Faience Factory Museum and Boutique, the Hunting Museum and the Chateau de Gien. After visiting Gien, passengers return to the barge for a cruise to Ouzouersur-Treze.

DAY 5

The afternoon excursion takes travelers to the renowned wine region of Sancerre, where they will be able to taste wine and explore the charming hilltop village. The cruise takes in the scenery of the worlds longest aqueduct, which crosses the Loire River. The Vaux le Vicomte in Maincy has a formal gardens and a collection of horse-drawn carriages.

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

Colo. agency, dive resort give an A-1 effort

Stories of travel agencies that do well by doing good can come from unexpected segments of the industry. A case in point is A-1 Scuba & Travel Center in Englewood, Colo., which recently escorted a group of five paralyzed scuba divers to Divi Tiara Beach Resort in Cayman Brac.

The trip was part of a dive therapy/disabled diver program for quadriplegics and paraplegics created in conjunction with Craig Hospital, also in Englewood, which is known for its work with patients who have spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.

A-1 Scuba operates a store for diving enthusiasts and a travel agency, according to its co-owner and director of training, Scott Taylor.

Taylor, whose wife Lynn runs the travel agency, was a physical therapist at Craig Hospital until he retired in 1984 and devoted himself full-time to his love of diving.

The dive therapy program started slowly with a few disabled divers a year until, in January, Taylor met Max Hillier, the general manager of the Divi Tiara resort.

We talked to him about disabled diving, and we decided to do a group trip, Taylor said.

Taylor said the property was accommodating to the group, which also included divers without disabilities, beyond expectations.

I thought each disabled diver would get an able-bodied assistant dive buddy, but we had a dive master, and every one else was an instructor or above.

The Divi Tiara staff had a similarly positive reaction.

It is a great privilege to allow those who have been challenged by physical conditions to feel the freedom from their disability and to re-energize their passion for life and getting involved in activities, Hillier said of the partnership.

Divi Flamingo Beach Resort & Casino in Bonaire also offers facilities for handicapped guests and divers and has hosted disabled diving groups.

As for Taylor, he is contemplating organizing other tours on a regular basis.

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

Going the extra mile

By Richard Turen

Every once in a while, I think it is wise to try to remember that ours is the most global of global business models. If we cant adjust to globalization, how will our clients?

We are taught and we self-learn destinations.

It is a peculiar kind of learning. We know the best rooms at the best hotel and the best time to see the sun set in the tiny village of Oia on the northwest corner of Santorini.

But when we send our clients to the Greek islands do we give them any sense of the place they are visiting? Do they know anything at all about current issues? Do they know what the headlines are saying in the destinations local paper?

Up to now, the answer has pretty much been no.

So our clients go to Greece and dont know that the Greeks consume more olive oil than any other people on earth or that nothing can ever be accomplished in Greece between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. because of the strong belief in afternoon rest.

But I wonder if we dont need to be thinking about taking on still another responsibility in our growing role as travel consultants.

How many clients, for instance, were sent to China this winter without being aware that the largest annual movement of humanity in history occurred between Jan. 14 and Feb. 28, when several hundred million Chinese, representing about 2 billion trips, traveled between the city and farm to celebrate the lunar new year? Had each client been given an English-language Chinese newspaper, this information would have been available.

The Internet makes it possible to download information from the worlds press relatively easily. Finding research staff to download appropriate materials is probably not going to be a daunting task.

Many of us already provide historical background material for our departing clients. Some of us see to it that clients have the appropriate books for background research. Suppliers like Abercrombie & Kent and Tauck World Discovery provide reading lists.

But thus far, no one is making a conscious effort to brief clients on current issues for each destination they are visiting. What is the man on the street talking about? What are the current issues revolving around education, healthcare, crime and politics? What are the latest trends?

If our clients have to seek this information on their own, they will find it increasingly tempting to do the whole trip themselves.

Over the years, many suppliers have grossly miscalculated the interest Americans have in the detailed history of the places they are visiting. More and more travelers seek a sense of place, an understanding of current conditions.

They want to know the hottest restaurants and the hottest residential areas. They want to know what things cost. No supplier, to my knowledge, adequately provides this type of background material to our clients. The plane lands in Lima and few, if any, of the Americans getting off have any idea of current issues or conditions in the city.

This knowledge vacuum provides an opportunity for a consultant to go far beyond the anticipated.

Do we need to advise clients, for instance, that they may be offered frog juice, made from honey and Titicaca frogs? Or that the Inca Trail is the most popular hiking route in South America, but you have to be part of a registered group?

Perhaps we have to say that it is the local guide, most often trained as a historian, who will deliver the historical goods. It is the consultants role to provide the contemporary overview for the arriving traveler.

We must take responsibility for imparting a sense of place to our clients. We can use some of the free timewe all have to do it.

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 its inception in 2000.

Five Things

Top incidents that lead to medical evacuations

1. Motor vehicle accidents. Crashes, either involving rental cars overseas or travelers own cars in the U.S., are the most common reasons why travelers land in the hospital, according to AirMed International, an evacuation specialist. The majority of road crash victims in developing countries are outside the vehicle: pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicyclists. According to the U.S. State Dept., more than 200 U.S. citizens

die each year as a result of road accidents abroad.

2. Heart attacks or other cardiac episodes. According to the American Heart Association, approximately 1.2 million U.S. residents suffer a first or a recurrent heart attack each year. The stress of travel can be a triggering factor for heart-related crises among travelers with heart conditions.

3. Food poisoning. Some destinations may be particularly well known for being hazardous places to eat, but food can go bad anywhere. According to Wrongdiagnosis.com, an estimated 1.4 million people in the U.S. are infected with salmonella annually (and those are only the reported cases) and another 25,000 are infected by E coli.

4. Animal, reptile and insect bites. Animal bites can cause permanent damage and pose a risk of rabies, reptile bites can be poisonous and insect bites can be poisonous or produce severe allergic reactions. Smaller reptiles like snakes can hide in campgrounds, natural swimming holes or storage closets, while poisonous arachnids like scorpions will hide in shoes and luggage, beneath furniture and camping gear.

5. Adventure accidents during activities such as hiking, skiing and swimming. Travelers can be overzealous in their quest for fun and excitement, while not recognizing the limits to their abilities or taking precautions associated with such activities. Given that many adventure tours take travelers to remote areas, accidents of this type can be particularly hazardous, as the nearest medical facility may be many miles away.

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