The luxury of a niche agency

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Customers looking for standard cruises wont find what theyre looking for at Leslie Fambrinis travel agency. And she wouldnt have it any other way -- because Fambrini focuses on one sector of the cruise industry and one sector only: luxury.

Fambrini, owner of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif., will tell you that she learned from the creme de la creme of cruise companies: The venerable Royal Viking Line, where in 1973 she took a job as an administrative temp and stayed for 11 years.

I loved the deluxe nature of the product and cruising, she said. As far as an introduction to the industry, it could not have been better. We were selling the best at the best time in history. The product did nothing but make people happy.

Through the years she worked in the companys shore excursions department and as an in-house travel agent. Arranging tours worldwide for Royal Viking passengers gave me the confidence to open my own business, she said.

In the 1980s Fambrini did just that, opening a small office on the 11th floor of an office building. I was always told that the most successful agents were upstairs, she said, adding that shes also believed that phone conversations are far more efficient than walk-in conversations.

Quality over quantity

It has never been her intent to be one of the biggest agencies, Fambrini said. She runs the business with just one assistant. I want to control everything, she said, and Id rather have quality over quantity. I not only am able to focus on my cruise products and clients, but Im so small I dont have the disruptions agents with larger offices have.

Keeping her business small also enabled Fambrini to focus on building relationships with both cruise lines and customers. Its all about personal relationships combined with good, old-fashioned hard work, she said. Ive been doing this for eight hours a day, five days a week for 30 years.

In the know

The hard work and personalized service appear to have paid off. A case in point: I have one client who is on his 141st cruise with one cruise line. Repeat customers, she said, become a part of her family.

You know them so well that you know all their needs. You try to anticipate their needs, Fambrini said. And just make sure that everythings just right. You choose a product that you know is just right for them.

Knowing the ships she sells -- and ensuring they meet the clients exacting standards -- is equally as important as cultivating client and cruise line relationships, she noted. Fambrini is judicious about choosing ships to sail on. I turn down more trips than I take, she said. You cant produce and be out there on ships all the time.

When on a cruise, Fambrini pays close attention to the attitude and spirit of the crew and how they interact with guests. Then theres the cleanliness factor. Fambrini said she scours the edges of rooms for evidence of lint or dust.

A little help from her friends

Her consortium, Virtuoso, is equally as exacting, said Fambrini, adding that she wouldnt want to exist without it. Virtuoso not only enables Personalized Travel Consultants to offer clients the best fares -- its Voyager Club provides clients with value that cannot be translated into dollars.

For instance, her clients are treated to personalized shore excursions and cocktail parties available only to Virtuoso-member clients. We make our shore excursions the most fabulous available in any particular port, she said.

Fambrini hasnt had to actively advertise these special services. She has relied on the publicity of such publications as Conde Nast Traveler, where, year after year, she is recommended as one of the publications Travel Pros.

Conde Nast has really helped me build my business, she said. Its been a real honor. The listing in the publication, she said, has helped her tap the lucrative baby boomer market.

Whats so exciting to me is the baby boomer generation and the way in which its members are evolving, said Fambrini. Theyre sophisticated and they know what they want. In essence, she said, this generation of travelers wants enlightening, educational experiences when traveling.

Nonetheless, upscale baby boomers love luxury, and Fambrini believes she knows how to keep them happy. They come back with smiles, she said. Its very seldom I ever hear a complaint. Its just a win-win, positive situation.

To contact Agent Life reporter Claudette Covey, send e-mail[email protected].

Perfect itinerary

Adventure in Anchorage and beyond 

The Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska, 40 miles from Anchorage.Margaret Propper, a travel counselor and Alaska specialist at Brownell Travel in Birmingham, Ala., has traveled to Alaska 25 times and will be attending the Iditarod dogsled race in March. Proppers perfect itinerary begins in Anchorage and visits Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula and the Katmai Coast.

Day 1

Clients spend the night at the 307-room Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, which is 40 miles from Anchorage. From Anchorage, they take an Alpine Air flight to a glacier where they meet up with their team of dogs that drives them across the glacier. Afterwards, clients spend some time with their team before flying back to the resort, said Propper. In the afternoon, travelers hike on trails around the lodge. In the evening, they dine at Seven Glaciers restaurant, which is accessed by cable car. You have a view of seven glaciers when the weather is clear, Propper said.

Day 2

Travelers depart via rental car for a short drive to Whittier, where they board a Prince William Sounds Cruises and Tours vessel and take in the scenic vistas of Prince William Sound. They have lunch onboard. Dinner that evening is at the Turnagain House, whose specialties include fresh Alaska seafood, prime rib, duck and lamb.

Day 3

Travelers check out of the Alyeska Resort for a scenic drive to Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, taking in the beautiful views and small villages en route. They overnight at the four-bedroom Aloha Bed and Breakfast, with sweeping views of glaciers, the Kenai Mountains and the Homer Spit.

Day 4

Clients board a small plane operated by Bald Mountain Air Service and fly to the Katmai Coast for a day of bear viewing. You are sure to see lots of bear as the plane is able to land where the bears are fishing, said Propper.

Day 5

Travelers spend the morning bird watching on the Homer Spit, a 4.5-mile-long bar of gravel that extends from the Homer shoreline. In the afternoon, they depart for the drive back to Anchorage. En route they stop at Exit Glacier to hike on a paved trail up to the glacier. Later they stop at the Portage Glacier Visitors center and the Native Heritage Center on the outskirts of Anchorage. They dine at Simon and Seaforts in Anchorage, which specializes in seafood.

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

A New York partner has all the answers

The challenge: A recently divorced father wants to arrange a vacation to New York for himself, his teenage daughter and four of her friends. But he doesnt know how to plan such a trip for teenagers, so he turns to his travel agent.

The solution: The agent calls Manhattan-based Discover New York With Kitt Garrett, her Virtuoso on-site partner that will arrange virtually any New York special event or vacation.

Discover New York With Kitt Garrett took care of all details of the trip, including tickets for "Wicked" on Broadway.Kitt Garrett arranged for personal shoppers, limo transfers, the best seats in the house for sold-out Broadway performances and a helicopter ride to see the city, said Rebecca Falkenberry, an adventure and leisure travel consultant at Hills Travel Service in St. Petersburg, Fla. The father and daughter came home glowing with a renewed relationship.

All Falkenberry had to do was provide the company the names and ages of the group and a general idea of what they wanted to do while in New York. The company took over the booking from there.

Falkenberry is so comfortable with Kitt Garrett that she had no second thoughts about putting the client directly in touch with the company. Thats a wonderful gift to be able to trust the supplier to talk directly to the client, she said.

Julia Salem, a client services associate at Kitt Garrett who worked on the arrangements, knew the right activities for the group. She knew that teenage girls would rather check out hip clothing stores downtown than visit the traditional shopping spots like Bergdorf or Bloomingdales.

She also knew which personal shopper/guide to accompany the girls and which restaurants and shows to book. They dined at Ruby Foos and took in Wicked, one of Broadways hottest shows.

Our job is to take away all the time an agent would spend booking the hotels, arranging transfers and planning itineraries, she said. Kitt Garrett is one-stop shopping. We can do it all for the agent.

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

Marc My words

What does it all mean?

 By Marc Mancini

Marc ManciniArent there words or phrases you cant stand? I have a whole inventory of them. I thought Id share them with you because they can easily disconnect you from what youre trying to achieve with your client.

" Suite. Whats a suite? It used to be a room with clearly separate living and sleeping areas. Now it can refer to any oversize room. And do super-luxury vessels really have all suites? Or are they big staterooms? Or, CLIA forbid, cabins. Make sure your customer doesnt get the wrong idea about what a suite is.

" Direct flight. This used to mean a flight stopped somewhere then continued to another destination. Now airlines often surprise passengers by announcing there will be a change of equipment when they get to the first destination. The whole point was to stay on one plane.

" Guaranteed hotel reservation. OK, suppose the hotel is oversold and the guest gets walked to another property. (Guests usually walk in a taxi.) Perhaps a guaranteed reservation means that if you dont show up, youre guaranteed to have the first night billed to your credit card.

" FIT. Dont even get me started on what FIT stands for. If you think you know, ask a few other travel professionals. Each may give you a different answer. I think its called that because it inevitably gives you a fit.

" Generational words and phrases. I shudder when I hear an agent call several women you guys. Whats next, a young agent who calls a client dude and says a trip is wack?

" Avoidance sentences. Have you heard any of the following? Youll have to ... Its against policy ... I cant ... Were really busy ... Its not my job (a timeless classic). At all costs, avoid avoidance sentences.

" Contradictory phrases. Why does the American Plan mean all meals are included, even though such plans are rare in the U.S.? And what about the European Plan, in which no meals are included -- even though many European hotel rates include breakfast?  Actually, Fred Miller, Marriotts vice president of global sales, gave me the answer. Early in the 20th century, many Americans were afraid of eating outside their hotels, so all meals were provided. Conversely, Europeans were adventuresome and preferred to eat away from the hotel.

" Jargon. I once heard an agent say this to a customer: The K and V seats are sold out, so you have an H seat with a 50% penalty instead of an NR. That, of course, left the client open-jawed.

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

5 Things

Must-have tech tools for home-based agents

 

1. Wireless G router: Linksys Wireless G Broadband Router with Speedbooster WRT54G, about $75. You want a wireless network because it gives you the flexibility to move your office equipment around without having to worry about ethernet cables, said Rik Fairlie, editor of Computer Shopper magazine. The G router lets you share broadbrand connections with co-workers.

2. Color laser printer: Konica Minolta Magicolor 2430DL, about $499. This laser printer will attract small businesses and home users fed up with the high cost of color-inkjet cartridge refills and photo paper, Fairlie said, adding that agents can create professional brochures and itineraries. Inkjets are slow, and cartridge costs are notoriously high. Lasers are better all-around printers, he said.

3. External hard drive: Maxtor OneTouch II, 300GB, starting at $250. If your hard drive goes south, youre dead, said Fairlie. Everyone needs to back up their work, but its often too much of a hassle. With this 300-gigabyte hard drive, users press a button that automatically duplicates their hard drive. Users also can opt to automatically schedule overnight, unattended backups.

4. Voice Over Internet Protocol (IP) phone: Linksys Vonage Phone Adapter Model, PAP2, $59. This Internet phone enables agents to set up a phone number in any area code and take the phone adapter with them when they travel. Once you set it up, its like using a regular phone, Fairlie said, and the service is cheaper than standard phone service.

5. Microsoft Streets & Trips 2005 mapping software, $39. This product is great for printing maps of cities for clients, Fairlie said. Its faster than using online map services and offers better- quality maps.

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