Mark Comfort believes in aggressive marketing and advertising, but dont ask him whether he has a two- or three-prong strategy that he uses to promote his travel agencies, Cruise Holidays of Kansas City and Comfort Tours and Travel.

On any given day, he may be considering the addition of another tactic to his arsenal. The aim, however, is always the same: making sure that the agencies are topmost in the minds of residents in Kansas City, Mo., when they think travel.

We have a consistent marketing philosophy, but it evolves, said Comfort, who owns the agencies with his wife, Mimi. Mark, a former Sealy mattress factory representative, and Mimi, who was a department store buyer, opened the Cruise Holidays franchise in 1988.

In 1996, the couple expanded by launching Comfort Tours and Travel, a full-service agency, to handle clients looking for noncruise travel. Mimi handles personnel and financial matters. Mark concentrates on marketing and sales.

His first and most long-term marketing strategy has been the traditional route: newspaper advertising. For the last 16 years, Cruise Holidays has advertised in the Kansas City Stars Sunday travel section.

The ad always has had the same look and style, with a rope border and four suppliers showcasing cruise specials. The headline is Dont Trust Your Cruise Vacation With Anyone Else.

The ads are part of a co-op program with cruise suppliers, who pay most of the cost. Ive always had the philosophy that we should pay every bit of the same share as vendors, Comfort said. So, Im paying a fifth of the cost of the ad. Its important because cruise lines appreciate that were not trying to get something for nothing.

The newspaper ads are the agencies primary lead generator, which may come as a surprise to those who believe that, with newspaper readership down, the avenue is not as productive as it once was.

People talk about the death of newspapers and how advertising is not as effective, but the key is that were in every week and its in a travel section, Comfort said. Theres a huge percentage of people above the age of 40 who still read newspapers. And were evolving our marketing to make sure we also reach those under 40 who dont read newspapers.

Another part of Comforts strategy is his hour-long Saturday-morning travel show on KCMO, an AM radio station in Kansas City. Comfort has been the shows host for the last seven years and the exposure has been tremendous because it allows us to reach an audience that does not read newspapers or receive our agency newsletter.

Shortly after starting the program, Comfort took the radio stations offer to control the advertising, meaning he is in charge of the sales. I basically bought the hour and got the sponsors, which are my cruise partners, he said.

Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America, Princess and Norwegian Cruise Line pay for two one-minute commercials during the hour. Comfort and his staff often create the cruise lines commercials, using customer testimonials.

Another source of new customers has been Comforts public speaking. He routinely appears before Rotary and other groups in the city. Recently, a financial planner who is a fan of the radio show hired Comfort to speak to potential clients. A cruise that was being given away at the event was a carrot to draw people to the financial planning seminar.

Ive recently realized that we need to get back to basics, Comfort said. Talking to groups and organizations is a tremendous way of gaining new customers. I talk about my favorite travel experiences, like going on African safaris, and give travel tips. It makes our agency known and makes us look like the travel experts in our area.

Cruise Holidays Kansas City also publishes a newsletter four times per year that goes to 32,000 customers. There are frequent seminars and cruise nights in the agencies 20,000-square-foot office building, which can accommodate up to 600 people.

The two agencies employ 22 full-time agents, 18 of whom work at Cruise Holidays, the larger of the two companies. Comfort does not disclose sales volume, but he said seven of his Cruise Holidays agents sell over $1 million in cruises a year, one of them over $2 million a year.

Whats next on the marketing front? Were doing a supermarket chain promotion with Price Shoppers, which has 900,000 customers and has a goal of getting 400,000 of their e-mail addresses. Its giving away a Holland America cruise. Were going to get a lot of publicity out of this promotion.

Other marketing techniques include weekly e-mail blitzes, although Comfort said response to e-mail promotions has been just so-so.

They are way down on the list of what creates business for us. But what we have found is that they work well when they include last-minute specials and when we announce seminars, he said.

Comfort is going to stick with the e-mails and put more resources in improving the agencies Web sites. I will evolve as customers buying habits evolve, he said. My goal is to communicate with the customer the way they want to be communicated with.

TravelWeekly.com wants to hear your story. Think youre a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Laura Del Rosso, Agent Life editor, at [email protected], and please 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

Falls climbing and cliff diving (maybe) in Jamaica

Carol Rone, manager of Kansas City, Mo.-based Comfort Tours and Travel, designed an itinerary, sharing her views on the best that Jamaica has to offer. Rone has been in the travel industry for 26 years, and her agency specializes in all-inclusive vacations.

DAY 1

Arrivals into the Montego Bay area can be as early as midmorning, since Jamaica is so easily accessible. The one-hour, 20-minute transfer to the east side of the island and the Ocho Rios/Dunns River area gives clients an island tour, showing the variation in terrain and the small townships of Jamaica. After arriving at the newly renovated Sunset Jamaica Grande resort to start their all-inclusive stay, guests dine in one of the resorts five restaurants. A must try are the offerings spiced with jerk seasoning, for which the island is famous.

DAY 2

An abundant assortment of activities await clients, from climbing Dunns River Falls Clients can get their feet wet climbing Dunns River Falls. (a natural, 800-foot waterfall) to a Blue Mountain Tour, where they can meet coffee farmers as well as have a waterfall swim in one of the natural fern grotto rafting areas. Water sports of all types are available at the resort, and some are included in the all-inclusive plan. A visit to the famous James Bond Beach is a must.

DAY 3

Clients head to the west side of the island, the Negril area, for the more laid-back atmosphere, where they can enjoy some nice beaches and sunsets. They can take a half-hour flight on small aircraft or check out the islands scenic adventures by land, a journey of nearly three hours. Clients arrive in time for an afternoon excursion by horseback through the Rhodes Hall Plantation or simply ease back with one of the islands drink specialties, a hummingbird.

DAY 4

The day starts with a visit to the fully operational Negril Lighthouse, which is a historical marker. The Royal Palm Reserve is a haven for bird-watchers and includes a sightseeing nature walk. The afternoon/early evening finds clients at Ricks Cafe, where clients can watch the local cliff divers -- or even take the plunge themselves, if the spirit moves -- and enjoy another one of Negrils fine sunsets. Shopping at the local straw market or small shops offers a chance to purchase a perfect souvenir such as a local woodcarving.

DAY 5

Flights depart throughout the day, so another beach day in paradise is an option. There are many fine stores for last-minute shopping at the airport.

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

Operator, agent team up to offer holiday coupon

Some people are eager to see a box from Tiffany under the Christmas tree. Others look for something more practical.

Last holiday season, Scott Pinheiro of Santa Cruz Travel, Santa Cruz, Calif., bet that a lot of people would like to discover on Christmas morning that a loved one is planning a Hawaii vacation.

Pinheiro, the agency manager, linked with Happy Vacations, a wholesaler, to offer local residents coupons good for $100 off Hawaii packages of seven nights or more booked through the agency. The co-op campaign featured newspaper ads in the holiday gift guide of a local newspaper, Good Times.

The $100 coupons were designed to be clipped out and used by readers, who could bring them to the agency to buy Hawaii packages as Christmas presents.

We saw the trends that gift cards are really big items for the holidays, said Pinheiro, who is ASTA area director and is the son of former ASTA president Jeanne Epping. People also get together with relatives and friends during the holidays, so theres bound to be some discussion about travel for the next year. So its a good time of year to stimulate interest in a Hawaii vacation.

The coupons were valid through 2006 in case readers decided to take advantage of the offer after the holiday season.

Before Thanksgiving, Pinheiro contacted Happy Vacations to discuss the campaign. He got the go-ahead for a 50-50 split on the price of the ad and the $100 discount.

Rick Garrett, president of Happy Vacations, said such promotions build customer loyalty to retailers but are not important revenue generators.

Were basically giving away the profit on that booking to get an edge in the marketplace, he said. The name of the game for retail agencies is to build the customer base. Maybe they have to bait the hook this time but next time they will get the client back. Were investing in the agency and in their efforts in building their customer base. It will pay off in the future with customer loyalty.

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.

Daltons Corner

I have to get out of here

By John Dalton

Many agents seem to believe the more cruise product knowledge they exhibit to a client, the more they will be considered an expert and the client will book with them. But before the client contacts anyone, they are motivated to take a cruise by other factors that far outweigh product knowledge.

Travelers have two basic motivating factors. The first is a desire to go to certain places or sail on specific ships. The other is the stress of everyday life and need to escape.

They usually utter one of two phrases that tell you which one is their primary motivation to travel: I cant wait to take a vacation to ... or I have to get out of here; I need a vacation. These two comments are driven by two different motivations. Cruise ads on TV address both.

We all know the product-knowledge approach to selling, but in todays world the most effective way to get people cruising is to focus on the reasons why they might want to escape their normal lives.

It might be their job, the boredom of their everyday lives, the world news depicting politicians and crime or just plain stress that tells you the reasons they need to get away. What they are buying is not a cruise but chance to experience a different lifestyle than the one they lead at home.

So rather than give you examples of how to approach selling to those who wish to escape, Id thought Id take a shortcut.

Do you remember the song Makin Whoopee? I have changed the words to demonstrate that the more you know about your clients, the easier it is to sell. Just use my lyrics and start singing, and perhaps youll understand my point of view. If you dont know the melody thats OK -- the words should convey my message.

First verse

He goes to work, he hates his job. There is his boss, oh what a slob.

His wifes unhappy, her comments snappy. Hes just a loser.

They never win at any game. The food at home all tastes the same.

Their lives are borin, by eight theyre snorin.

They both are losers.

Theyre sittin home one evenin, half-watchin their TV.

They see an ad bout cruisin, tells them to go to sea.

It says go cruisin and change your life. Forget the news, your job, the strife.

Your lives are frightful, a cruise delightful. Dont be two losers.

Second verse

They see an agent right down the street.  She tells them cruisin is hard to beat.

She says: Escape and youll go ape. When you go cruisin.

Theyre tellin friends and neighbors, too, theyre going cruisin, long overdue.

Their outlooks changin, lifes rearrangin. Theyre going cruisin.

Now theyre out buying great things to take with them on their cruise.

Its like theyre two new people, what happened to their blues?

Here they are, theyre on the ship. They watch the land become a blip.

The ship is leavin, and they aint heavin. Cause they are cruisers.

Third verse

They cant believe the sea, the sun, the food, the service and all the fun.

The shows are thrillin, and theyre so willin. To be cruisers.

Already Tuesday, bout 4 oclock.  Back to the cabin, they lock the lock.

Instead of snorin, theyll soon be roarin.  Theyre makin whoopee!

Now theyre back home and happy, tellin all those they know.

Cruisin can change your mind-set, thats why ya gotta go.

So thats the story of only two. Their travel agent knew what to do.

She knew their profiles and sold their lifestyles and made them cruisers.

Well, thats my message. Travel is an escape.  So free lots of people and send them cruisin.

John Dalton is an industry consultant, trainer and speaker. He can be reached at (336) 431-1596 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Five Things

Increasing your Web site traffic

1. Change it up. Promote something different every week or month to pique the interest of customers so they keep coming back for more. In 2004, we implemented an aggressive Web marketing campaign and our e-commerce-based revenue grew from 10% to more than 75% in just one year, said Maureen Kennedy, general manager of the Travel Institute. Each month we choose new products to promote so our customers see the full range of our offerings. Then we develop a specific marketing campaign for each product to keep the effort tailored and fresh.

2. Zero in on your target. A targeted e-marketing campaign is more likely to win over those you are trying to reach. Segment your database based on product appeal and purchase history. No one likes to get bombarded with messages that are irrelevant to his or her needs, said Kennedy.

3. Be there or be square. If you want to increase traffic to your Web site, you need to be present in the marketplace. Trade shows, bridal fairs, chamber of commerce events and local service organization meetings are great ways to see and be seen. When hosting a booth or networking at an event, give away something that directs potential customers to your Web site, said Kennedy. People get so busy at events that they dont look at what theyve collected until they get back to the office. Find something that stands out.

4. Connect with allies. Our partners willingness to promote our offerings has been key to our increase in traffic, said Kennedy. Develop strategic alliances that will result in your promotions appearing on partners Web sites and in newsletters and other communications.

5. Keep customers in the loop. Keep customers coming back who have already used your services. Monthly newsletters or e-mails will remind them that there is always something new on your Web site they should check out. Once they open the e-mail, its likely theyll be interested in at least one of the new offers presented, Kennedy said.

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