The more things change ...

Despite the changes she has seen in her 15 years in the industry, agency owner Susan Maheras has maintained an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" strategy through industry ups and downs.

And judging from her recent, second consecutive Readers Choice award by Community Newspaper Co., which publishes more than 100 local newspapers in 130-plus towns in eastern Massachusetts, the approach is working.

Maheras, owner of Clipper Travel in Scituate, Mass., shared some of her old-fashioned rules for success:

  • Professionalism. "A good agent is still a good agent and cannot be [replaced] by the Internet or anything else," she said.
  • And while conceding that finding good employees is hard, Maheras makes sure that when she gets someone good, she said she hangs on to that person by fostering a team spirit at work.

  • A sound corporate/ leisure mix. "We are about 55% corporate, down from about 70% a few years ago, and we do work hard to build up our leisure business," Maheras said, adding that often, when the two portions of her business are about even, a new corporate account comes along and skews the ratio again.
  • The good news, Maheras said, is that those new clients are pieces of a larger pie, which translates into greater volume.

  • Smile. "I would venture that if you ask most agents about what is fun about being a travel agent, many would say there isn't anything," she said. "Everything is more complicated and demanding, but we've found that when you deal with airlines and tour companies with a smile, you generally get that back. Then you score a bull's-eye."
  • Client advocacy. "It's a mission for us to help people travel, especially in this climate of delays and 'Sorry sir, we don't have your reservation,' " she said.
  • Specifically, Maheras gives clients a toll-free number to call and counsels them to carry mobile phones.

    Admitting that troubleshooting can be time-consuming, Maheras said it pays off down the line in client loyalty.

  • Service. "When you take care of the whole traveling person rather than just the trip, a trust builds," which can, in turn, save time, she said.
  • Rather than call dozens of times to check on the progress of a trip, Maheras said many of her clients "just know we will get the job done."

    ... the more they stay the same

    Although catering to her clients' needs is "our mission statement," Susan Maheras, owner of Clipper Travel in Scituate, Mass., has made one concession to changing times: She charges service fees.

    "If we didn't charge $15 fees, we would be endangered because we lost 50% of our bottom line with the commission caps," she said of her five-person agency.

    Admitting that she held out as long as she could -- until last October -- before charging fees, Maheras said she probably should have instituted a fee structure sooner and charged more.

    "The fees don't come close to recovering the money we lost, and I am disappointed in the lack of ethics and integrity on the part of the airlines, but at least we are not endangered anymore," she said.

    Maheras also encourages clients to do research on the Internet, which she said can give them a better sense of a product than a brochure.

    But when clients are tempted to book on line or balk at fees, Maheras reminds them of one simple fact: "I tell them we are a small business, and they could easily put us out of business.

    "And once that happens, and we are gone, there will no longer be a choice [of where to book travel].

    "It's like the five-and-dime down the street," Maheras said.

    "Once it's lost, it's lost forever."

    Glaciers of gold

    It ought to be a travel salesperson's dream.

    One of the most pristine destinations on earth, it has almost no crime, cool summer temperatures and a season that provides an additional five or six hours of daylight to visitors.

    Richard Turen.It is a destination for cruisers who average 50 years or so, an average age that is going down rapidly as baby boomers discover the virtues of soaring scenery and an environment that is about as healthy and outdoorsy as one can get an opportunity to experience in this day and age.

    It isn't hard to know the products; fewer than 30 ships dominate the market, a mix of megas and specialty niche operators.

    No need to worry about direct business competition.

    This destination's 650,000 annual cruisers are sent there by travel agents; no more than 4% book direct.

    It's an amazingly profitable destination, paying out more than $100 million in commissions last year alone.

    Along with Africa, it shares the single characteristic that travel sellers should always search out.

    I call it "repeatability."

    No one who arranges a first trip to this destination plans on returning. Yet, most travelers yearn to return after their first encounter with it.

    It is a destination that abounds with high-yield packages.

    It is an ideal family vacation destination, offering comfort, civility, bears and snow-capped mountains.

    If you can't sell this destination, you might want to consider trying your hand in the fast-food industry.

    This destination is essentially all upside.

    Some call it the Great Land.

    Others just call it Alaska.

    Agents might better call it the "Land of Opportunity."

    Richard Turen is an industry consultant and travel agency president. Contact him at [email protected].

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