The perfectly pitched network

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If you can't find what you need, then do it yourself. That's the course Kulin Strimbu took three years ago when she helped found Four40 Travel in Denver. Strimbu was an agent who left a Thomas Cook office to work at home but was having trouble finding a decent host agency.

Kulin Strimbu created her own network for outside agents.After considering "what I lovingly call the $495-ers" (those companies that charge $495 for an agency ID but offer little else) and working with a host agency "that never paid me my commissions on time and eventually went bankrupt," she faced "a huge turning point."

Strimbu "wanted to provide the service I knew should be out there," so in the fall, with seed money from her parents, Robert and Elizabeth Holt, she created Four40 to "meet the needs of the ever-growing independent-agent market."

Now there are 62 independent agents in the network nationwide, and "I'm aspiring to 200 before the end of the year," said Strimbu.

With a 50/50 split of new and experienced agents, Strimbu found a really strong need for education. "I've yet to run into anyone who's a certified travel counselor" on her network, she said. So she made enrollment in the Institute of Certified Travel Agents' curriculum a requirement of joining Four40.

As part of their membership package, agents are enrolled in the ICTA certification program that most fits their experience. Those with limited industry experience get The Travel Industry Program (TRIP) kit, which gives them the chance to take the Travel Agent Proficiency test and complete one Destination Specialist course. More advanced agents are enrolled in the certified travel associate program.

The network has a preferred-supplier program available through the group's membership in the consortium vacation.com.

Agents also receive software called NetAgent that allows them to connect to Apollo through the Internet, "like they're sitting there in the office with us," said Strimbu.

And the name Four40? Those numbers represent the pitch of a perfectly tuned instrument, said Strimbu, and thus symbolize "what we'd like to be to our outside agents."

Four40: the details

Those who join Four40 Travel, the Denver-based network for home-based agents (discussed above), have their choice of two kinds of commission structures: a 70/30 split, or one where they pay an $8 fee for each transaction with an 80/20 split for cruises and tours.

To enroll, Four40 members (called affiliates) pay a one-time fee of $525. Included in their membership package: enrollment in an ICTA certification program and the software program NetAgent, which allows them to access Apollo using the Internet as their network. The company is also hoping to make a deal with Sabre for a connection in the near future, according to manager Kulin Strimbu. Affiliates also receive daily e-mails on the latest fams and discounts from a wide variety of vendors, including the preferred suppliers of vacation.com, the consortium to which Four40 belongs.

Four40 affiliates are required to have an errors and omissions policy of their own or can pay $50 annually to take advantage of the Four40 policy.

The program currently is strongest on the West Coast but also has a "big clump" of affiliates in New Jersey and Florida as well, said Strimbu.

Call (888) 811-0440 or check out the Web site, www.outsideagent.com for further information.

Reducing staff turnover

I just lost another employee. How can I reduce turnover?

This is a complex problem with many possible solutions. Here are a few ideas:

  • Tailor your management style to fit the individual. All people are different and want to be treated uniquely.
  • Foster open communication with your employees. Help them understand that you want them to bring up issues before they become problems.
  • Continue to "raise the bar" both in goals and rewards. If there is no challenge for your agents, chances are interest, enthusiasm and productivity will wane.
  • Thank your employees. False praise is easily discounted, but genuine appreciation is one of the most powerful ways to keep your employees.
  • Dan McManus.I'm allergic to cigarette smoke. Can I refuse to hire smokers?

    Probably not. The law varies from state to state, but in about 29 states and the District of Columbia, so-called "smokers' rights" laws prohibit employers from denying employment based on tobacco use outside the office. Be sure to carefully read any relevant statute for your city or state to determine if it applies to travel agencies because some businesses are exempt.

    You have the right in every state to enforce company rules and policies regarding the use of tobacco on site and/or during work hours.

    It would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for you to have a no-smoking policy in your agency. Make sure you explain this policy to applicants at the time you make the offer, so there's no misunderstanding when they begin employment.

    Former agency owner Dan McManus is the publisher of the newsletter The Successful Worldspan Agent. Contact him at [email protected].

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