The honeymoon connection

he year was 1987, and Renee Duane had $1,500 and a dream -- to find a great honeymoon spot. She wanted to spend her honeymoon in Mexico and turned to some agents for help.

One agent told her she did not have enough money and could not work with her.

Duane tried another agency. She said a retailer there felt sorry for her, handed her a hotel directory and said, "Honey, look through here and try to find yourself something."

Paul Pennicook, president of Issa Resorts, presents Renee Duane of Unforgettable Honeymoons with her prize. Duane found a hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, for $60 a night. She booked it, made air arrangements and had a great time.

The experience also planted a seed in her mind.

"I was sure there were other people in my situation," she said.

In 1994, she opened Unforgettable Honeymoons in Portland, Ore.

"I really believe [the adage] 'Do what you love and the money will follow.' "

This came true for Duane when she won Issa Resorts' "$2,000 in 2000" contest in October.

She won the award for making the most bookings from Jan. 1 to May 31 of 2000. Duane sent 152 couples to Issa's three resorts in Jamaica -- Couples Ocho Rios, Couples Negril and Swept Away in Negril.

Duane said she was not consciously trying to win the award.

In fact, the retailer said it was a natural occurrence because she gets such great feedback about the resorts from her clients that she continues to send couples there.

Duane asks clients to fill out a questionnaire when they return from one of her trips.

"Issa Resorts has been the best. Everyone wants to return. The satisfaction rate [from clients] has been 99.9%," she said.

She said she has received e-mails from clients on their honeymoon who were looking to book a return trip to the Issa properties.

In fact, Jamaica is not a tough sell for Duane's Portland clients.

"A lot of people [on the West Coast] have been to Hawaii and are looking for something different. I encourage couples to take a trip they might not ordinarily do and to pick something that is exciting for both of them," Duane said.

She said the No. 1 question clients ask about Jamaica is, "Can we leave our resort?"

"Jamaica is beautiful, and we tell them to take the necessary precautions as if they were traveling to any city. We've sent 1,000 people there and have not had a report of any incidence of crime," she said.

Besides Jamaica, Duane sends honeymooners to the South Pacific, Mexico and many other destinations.

Unforgettable Honeymoons' Web site.She also has not forgotten why she started this business.

"We have people who have a budget of between $800 and $1,000. We have three or four different options if you can spend only $1,000," she said.

"With $1,000, they think the most they can do is to drive somewhere locally and stay at a motel."

One plan the agency put together for a client was a three-night stay in Lake Tahoe that included air, resort accommodations and a car rental.

Duane's business started out as 100% honeymoon. However, thanks to word of mouth, her client base has grown to include the parents of her brides and grooms as well as various relatives.

Duane has observed that honeymooners are not necessarily booking vacations to celebrate their first anniversary.

"After they are married, they may be buying a house or having a baby, but they come back in two or three years," she said.

"They might have taken some small, local trips, but they've come back to us for larger trips."

To keep her clients in the loop, three years ago Duane launched the firm's Web site, at www.unforgettablehoneymoons.com.

The newly revamped site showcases packages to the Caribbean, the South Pacific and more. Duane does not accept on-line bookings.

"I feel more comfortable talking with someone over the phone," she said.

During the holidays, Duane reached out to her clients by writing out cards with personal messages.

The result -- bookings from clients who were reminded "how nice of a service you gave us," she reported.

Duane has three full-time employees in her agency. In fact, they are former clients.

She also works with several outside agents, including some individuals in Seattle and Los Angeles.

Duane said she is looking to work with more outside agents, whom she describes as "enthusiastic, motivated individuals who have a heart for honeymoons."

-- Laura Dennis

Personnel perplexities

One of my agents scheduled time off during the same period when several staff will be out leading a group tour. How can I keep this from happening again?

A: You can include blackout days in your agency's vacation policy to prevent this in the future. Look through a calendar year and mark any days that would cause hardship if employees choose those for vacation time. Also, as soon as a group blocks space, send or post a memo specifying that time as blackout days. Base your decisions on logical, business-related reasoning.

Dan McManus.In a memo to your employees or as an addition to your employee handbook, if you have one, list these dates as "no leave" days. Explain how important it is that you have a full staff during these particularly busy days or weeks.

Naturally, if an employee calls in sick on any of those days, he or she is excused from work. With any sick leave, give the employee the benefit of the doubt. The good health of your staff should be your primary concern.

Q:Do I have any recourse when an employee refuses to work on Saturdays for religious reasons?

A: You can't take this issue lightly. Courts have wrestled with reasonable absenteeism for years and often land on the employee's side of the debate. You should discuss this issue thoroughly with your employees before handing down any edicts.

Take a look at your required working hours and weekly schedules. Is it truly imperative that this employee work on Saturday, or can you shift that day to another employee or even to yourself? If a qualified employee is willing to take the Saturday shift, your problem is solved.

Even if the religion isn't anything you've heard of, our country is founded on religious freedom, and our courts generally frown on inflexible managers who don't try to find a compromise.

Former agency owner Dan McManus is president of the McManus Group publishers of business management advice. Contact him at [email protected].

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