Tunnel vision on suppliers

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Great Southern Travel of Springfield, Mo., took home two prizes at the Ensemble annual conference last fall, both for sales performance on behalf of Ensemble suppliers.

Linda Strait at EnsembleLinda Strait, vice president and director of agency operations, said some of that productivity was attributable to Great Southern's agency acquisitions, but there was something else: "We have almost tunnel vision, focusing on preferred suppliers," she said.

The managers of the agency's 11 retail locations, Strait said, regularly select or reaffirm the top two or three preferred suppliers in each category. That short list is taken from Ensemble's stable, Strait said, unless Ensemble does not have a candidate for a category important to the agency's mostly Midwestern clientele.

The managers set sales goals for the company, for each location and for each travel counselor. The agency pays sellers a base salary plus a quarterly incentive based on commissions they earn for the agency above two-and-a-half times their salary.

"That's why they sell preferreds," Strait said.

Besides, she said, it is more efficient to tend to customer needs when selling for preferreds.

The agency's tunnel vision also demands that staffers attend Tuesday morning educational sessions. Training can be focused on a product, a destination, sales techniques or technology, Strait said.

Each salesperson takes at least one handpicked fam trip per year on company time and at company expense.

Meanwhile, the agency promotes itself in several ways: "a lot of direct mail," a weekly e-mail, a radio talk show hosted by an employee, an informational Web site for leisure and "a lot of special events."

The agency hosts an annual anniversary event, which marks the date it opened the Springfield home office. The party features a mini-trade show, door prizes and a contest for best travel photo; the prize is a Classic Vacations Hawaii trip. Other branches are starting to sponsor anniversary events, too, Strait said.

Great Southern, owned by the state-chartered Great Southern Bancorp, was founded in 1977 and has always served both corporate and leisure clients.Today the split is 50/50.

In 2003, Great Southern, then a $45 million business, started buying agencies, beginning with Strait's $5 million business, the House of Travel in Springfield. Her parents had founded that business in 1969, and she bought them out.

Great Southern was in a buying mood, and Strait was inclined to sell for roughly the same reasons: There is "power in numbers," she said.

Besides, Strait said, Great Southern gained knowledgeable agents with varied skills.

Today, after six acquisitions, Great Southern is an $85 million business with 105 employees and about 30 independent contractors. There are 11 retail outlets, one res center and one corporate on-site, all in Missouri.

One branch is an airport outlet in Springfield that is manned from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day and is "invaluable for customer service, especially after hours."

The additional cost is only in the early and late hours, Strait said, because the airport office mostly functions as an ordinary branch serving corporate customers. "It is a comfort to our clients to know there is someone there who cares for them," she said. "The cost is well worth it."

The bank connection is a source of business. Three retail locations are in the lobby areas of a Great Southern building. The agency also handles five or six group tours annually for Great Southern's seniors club, although about half are one-day events.

The agency's group business varies widely, from long-haul trips to Australia or China to special-occasion family travel and an inbound business in Branson, Mo. Strait said the inbound operation was "no more than 5%" of sales.

The Assembly of God, headquartered in Springfield, is a Great Southern corporate client. Individual travelers are missionaries who "live all over the world and travel all over the world," Strait said, but the church also sponsors youth group trips.

Word of mouth brings in other churches' missionary travel plus mission projects involving lay members. The missions, generally to Nicaragua, are a form of voluntourism.

The agency also operates the Travel Career Academy, which Strait founded in 2001. A plan to offer specialty training for agents already in the field never took off, because the pool of candidates shrank as agency numbers fell after 9/11.

But the school offers two 22-week sessions a year for people new to the travel business. Sessions are capped at 10 students, because "this is a real hands-on class," Strait said. She added the agency hires about 20% of the grads, and the remainder scatter to other industry segments. The school even makes a small profit.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].


Perfect Itinerary
Highlights of China and Tibet

Forbidden CityThe following itinerary was created by Great Southern Travel in Springfield, Mo., for a group it will take to China later this year.

Day 1: Depart on an overnight flight to Beijing.  

Day 2: In Beijing, we'll be met by Viking River Cruises representatives and transferred to our deluxe hotel. Remainder of the day is free time.

Day 3: Visit Tiananmen Square, which covers 100 acres, and the Forbidden City with its palaces, pavilions and gardens. After lunch in a local restaurant, tour the 700-acre Summer Palace grounds. Take a dragon boat ride across the lake. Tonight's treat is a Peking duck dinner followed by the Peking Opera.

Day 4: Walk on the Great Wall of China. A local lunch is followed by a visit to the Sacred Way, flanked by huge animal sculptures, which leads to the Ming Tombs. Dinner is in a local restaurant.

Day 5: Begin with a rickshaw tour along Beijing's narrow alleyways, or hutongs. Then visit a silk carpet workshop to see this time-honored art. After lunch, fly to Xian, home of the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907. At night, experience the glory of this cultural period at a banquet with traditional song and dance.

Day 6: Tour Xian's archaeological wonder, the 6,000 life-size terra cotta warriors buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Then tour the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a majestic, seven-story square tower and a holy place for Buddhists. After dinner in a local restaurant, tour the marketplace.

Day 7: After free time in Xian and lunch, fly to Lhasa in Tibet. Experience Tibetan culture with a family-hosted tea followed by dinner at a local restaurant.

Day 8: Visit the 1,300-year-old Jokhang Temple. After a local lunch, explore the maze-like Barkhor Market in Lhasa and tour the Tibetan Museum. At night, enjoy a traditional Tibetan dinner.

Day 9: Tour the extraordinary 13-story Potala Palace, winter home of the Dalai Lama since the seventh century. Later, visit the Sera Monastery, an active temple. Lunch and dinner are in a local restaurant.

Day 10: Fly to the mountain city of Chongqing to board Viking Century Sky for our five-night Yangtze cruise.

Day 11: Visit the Shibaozhai Temple. Built into the side of a cliff, this red pavilion is a gem of Chinese architecture from the Qing Dynasty. Dinner is served aboard ship.

Day 12: Sail through the spectacular scenery of Qutang Gorge, the shortest and narrowest of the three large gorges. See an ancient plank road carved into the mountains and the mysterious hanging coffins of the Ba people. Board a smaller boat for an excursion through the Lesser Three Gorges. Stop for a barbecue lunch. Return to your ship and sail through Wu (Witches) Gorge, renowned for its 12 towering, cloud-covered peaks.

Day 13: Tour the monumental Three Gorges Dam, scheduled for completion in 2009.  The afternoon is highlighted by the Xiling Gorge, the longest of the gorges with the best scenery.

Day 14: Travel to a rural elementary school, sponsored by Viking River Cruises. Return to the ship for meals and scenic cruising.

Day 15: Tour the Wuhan Museum before your flight to Shanghai. After hotel check-in, the remainder of the day is at leisure.

Day 16: Explore Shanghai and visit the Shanghai Museum. Dine in a local restaurant, then be awed by Chinese acrobats at an evening performance.

Day 17: Transfer to the airport for your flight home.

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