Thriving in difficult times

The owners of Cherry Creek Travel Service in Denver aren't laughing about commission cuts and caps, but they also aren't waiting for the next swarm of locusts to come along, either. Instead, the agency's owners have diversified their business, positioned it with care and made customer service a priority. They're thriving as a result.

The agency's travel accessories area.Warren Erbsen, his wife Connie and partner Bob de Groot and wife Michelle have owned Cherry Creek Travel for eight years. After the first airline caps hit in 1995, things at the agency changed almost immediately.

First and foremost, the agency imposed service fees across the board, which were well received by almost everyone, Erbsen said. Next, the agents worked on their company's image. "Bob was really the visionary," Erbsen said of his partner, who rented a storefront location on Detroit Street, which is "Denver's version of Rodeo Drive," as Erbsen put it.

They found new purposes for fixtures left by the previous tenants and wound up with a very sleek and professional-looking office. Their next step was to expand their services to include passport photos, a Thomas Cook currency exchange concession and a retail store.

Although other agencies in the area were offering similar services, the travel accessories shop is what really sets Cherry Creek Travel apart, Erbsen said. The agency offers a range of travel gadgets, luggage and travel books and runs at a profit because "our people are much more knowledgeable about sales and use of travel items, have traveled extensively and know exactly what customers need."

The retailers are especially proud of their selection of travel books. "It really made us unique," Erbsen said, "because the person who did the initial order for all the travel books has 30 years of travel agency experience. We have a major bookstore nearby, but we feel our travel section is better [than its selection]."

Although revenues derived from the retail and photo services amount to less than 4% of the agency's gross sales, the agency's overall business has jumped by more than 20% during the past three years, for a total of $20 million in gross sales last year. So bring on the locusts. Cherry Creek Travel's been stocking up on Raid.

Efficient staffing

Staffing for Success could be the title of a book, but for the owners of Cherry Creek Travel, it's a constant challenge. The Denver agency is open every day, so having a staff of 18 full-timers is a big help. Weekends are the biggest staffing challenge, said co-owner Warren Erbsen.

Michelle de Groot.The agents initially hoped to garner business from the surrounding upscale stores that are open every day, but after a trial period, they decided that "Sundays weren't worth it," Erbsen said. On that day, in-store business is by appointment only; otherwise, the agents handle incoming calls from home.

As for Saturdays, Erbsen said, "My wife and I are the senior agents, so we handle a lot of [that] staffing.

"Each person works one Saturday every six to eight weeks and has one day off during the week."

The on-site travel accessories store is separately staffed and managed by Michelle de Groot, a co-owner of the business, and administrative duties are handled exclusively by co-owner Bob de Groot.

So what keeps the staff happy? Cherry Creek Travel offers incentives, including a share of the service fees, to keep good agents from straying. As a result, employees earn about 25% to 30% of their income from incentive pay, Erbsen said.

Marketing tools

At Cherry Creek Travel Service in Denver, finding the right client tops the to-do list every day. Targeting niche markets on the Web and promoting the expertise of the agency's employees are the primary means of marketing the shop, said co-owner Warren Erbsen.

The Web site's tag line -- "There are 450 travel agencies in the Denver-Metro area, and we are not one of them" -- might ruffle some feathers in the agent community. But Erbsen said his staffers have earned kudos with their average of 14 years of industry experience.

For business travelers, the site boasts that it offers "30 little-known ways to reduce business travelers' air fares from Denver."

Although Erbsen declined to offer any tips, he claimed that his agents are able to find the best and lowest fares 90% of the time, "except for last-minute bookings [when clients are buying] on the Internet."

The Web site, which accepted bookings for a short time, was redesigned to serve only as a promotional tool. "We tried to sell over the Internet, but that doesn't work for our clients," Erbsen said. The agency's older, upscale clientele places a high value on personal service, he said.

Erbsen and his wife Connie also have taken to the airwaves to promote their business, highlighting their own expertise. The couple hosts a weekly radio show on an oldies station with older, affluent listeners.

The show has helped to boost business at the agency "and gets people walking through the door," Erbsen said. As a result, Cherry Creek Travel has booked several group trips sponsored by the radio station and has garnered new business from walk-in listeners as well.

Comments

From Our Partners

2020 NTG Webinar Series
Travel, Our Future and Yours A Series of Conversations with Industry Leaders
Register Now
American Queen South
American Queen Steamboat Company
Read More
2020 Club Med Webinar
Let’s Escape Again with Club Med
Register Now

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI