Umbrella of specialists

ccording to Karen Killebrew, director of marketing for $30 million Bridge Travel Alliance in Emeryville, Calif., the agency's strategy of local mergers and acquisitions has been successful because "agents know they can do a lot better by coming together and becoming part of a larger firm."

Bridge Travel Alliance's partners: Grant Miller, left, and Steve Farmer. Killebrew and Sheila Dorey were co-owners of Escape Artists Travel and Holtz Tours in Oakland, which respectively focus on artist tours and senior travel, until they sold their merged company to Bridge Travel in May 1999.

She said the parent agency gives agents tremendous support. "The openness to new ideas and willingness to try different things has been a big part of making this work."

Escape Artists Travel's art tours are designed strictly for serious artists, meaning dedicated amateurs or professionals.

"The idea of organizing these types of trips first came when I was approached by Charlotte Britton, a famous local artist from the San Francisco Bay area," Killebrew said.

A typical brochure for one of Escape Artists Travel's tours.Since then, Killebrew has organized many trips escorted by artists from her local area. Her groups have visited New York's Hudson Valley, coastal Maine, Scotland, Spain, Mexico and the Cotswolds in England.

"I've started working with three local artists, whom I ask to provide a list of 100 prospects who might be interested in attending one of our trips," said Killebrew.

In fact, her art mailing list now totals approximately 1,500 art enthusiasts.

Artists who escort tours get their trips paid for and earn fees for the workshops they provide.

About three or four months after the trips, the art produced from the tours is displayed at local galleries.

Killebrew said she likes designing these tours because they are not "normal" vacations but working trips where sellable art is produced.

Holtz Tours, on the other hand, focuses on the over-70 crowd, offering 10 trips a year, most of them domestic. Its tour coordinator/escort has been with the company for 17 years and has become a big hit with the senior clientele.

"Clients love traveling with her and her enthusiasm for exploring America," added Killebrew. "She focuses on regional events, special activities and festivals, and encourages people to push themselves further than usual." Not surprisingly, all of its 2000 tours were sold out.

Bridge Travel co-owner Grant Miller said bringing these diversified agencies on board has been a big focus for the company. "Our goal is to build the leisure [segment] to 40% in the next two years and add more automation and technology," he said.

-- Michele SanFilippo

Marathon woman

ormer California agency owner Jan Lambert of LamBauer Travel in Cameron Park once started her days at 4:30 a.m. and worked until 1 p.m. to accommodate her roster of runners, hikers and walking enthusiasts on the East Coast.

Lambert described how she got started. "When I went to work for my first agency in 1976, I thought running would be a great stress reliever, and like Forrest Gump, I've been running ever since." But her real passion is running in ultra-marathons, which comprise anything over 26 miles.

"One year I was running a marathon a month, but typically I only participate a few times a year and train for six to nine months," she said. Part of the training also includes 16-mile runs to see her family because typically she likes to "go somewhere and accomplish something."

Jan Lambert, right, running in the 75th South African Comrades Race last year from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. Lambert has exclusively been focusing on her passion for running ever since the first commission cuts hit in 1995. She has sold numerous trips to races in exotic locales such as India, Morocco, South Africa, Tahiti and Peru. But due to family illness, Lambert recently sold her specialty business to Bridge Travel Alliance of Emeryville, Calif. However, she will continue to organize active groups on cruises and tours, as well as her celebrated running trips on behalf of Bridge Travel.

In fact, there's almost nothing Lambert doesn't do for her running groups, which usually consist of about 11 to 20 participants. She handles all travel, meals and lodging; she also provides tips on helpful exercises, letting her runners know how far along they should be in the training process.

Some of the more popular races she has participated in and sold include India's Himalayan Run & Trek, which covers 100 miles over a five-day period, and Morocco's Marathon de Sables, which covers 150 miles through the desert in six days.

Clients usually pay between $2,500 and $4,000 per person for these experiences, including air, accommodations, transfers, most meals, race fees and sightseeing and/or safaris.

Coming up next: Lambert is offering a February 2002 active cruise to New Zealand to visit the Milford fjords and a December 2002 trip to Peru to run the Inca trail.

The Web: Getting past all the hype

t's time to take a deep breath, folks, and look at the Internet mania and ask if the hype is justified.

There are lots of dot-com analysts who have been accurately measuring the steady, but not inexorable, rise in the number of people going on line for travel.

But the number of people using traditional agencies also is increasing, and the number of folks who have abandoned the Internet is not at all insignificant.

Richard Turen.This is a good time to calmly evaluate how much of your resources you want to devote to enhancing or developing a company Web site and how much of your budget is going to be allocated to technology.

There is one fact that I want you to always keep in the back of your mind. Today, 96% of all travel arrangements are made off line. By the most generous projections, 92% of all travel arrangements will be made off line in 2005.

Even Priceline spokesman William Shatner has been sweating as headlines scream that the travel dot-coms have hit a brick wall. The bottom line turns out that Web-based advertising is drying up, partially because of good hard data proving its success is just not attainable.

Your clients are using the Web for the same reasons you are -- to ferret out obscure information and read on-line brochures.

Now let's look to see exactly who couldn't make the Web work:

ByeByeNow filed for Chapter 11. It had Regis Philbin as its spokesman, a former NBC executive as its chief executive officer and the president of Carnival as a board member. But that roster of talent couldn't make it work.

Disney closed down its Go.com site, and the entire Disney Internet Group has been losing money. Even Disney couldn't get it to work the way it wanted.

Priceline stock plummeted, and Wal-Mart dropped its on-line site.

So allow me to suggest that now might be a good time to ask yourself this question: "What makes me think that I can get it to work?"

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

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