Unafraid of a challenge

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Kathy Hager has always loved a challenge, which may explain why she excels as a group specialist. In my earlier agent positions, no one wanted to take on groups, so through default I did, said Hager, a cruise marketing specialist at Burkhalter Travel Agency in Madison, Wis. I set out to learn all that I could about them.

The reason why many agents are intimidated by booking large groups is fairly obvious.

They are challenging because of the large number of people to please, especially where there are individuals who deviate from the group plans, said Hager. An agent needs to be clear about the expectations of the group and the group leader.

But for Hager, the challenge is part of what she likes about creating group cruises.

A group creates a larger feeling of anticipation, said Hager. Everyone is excited.

Although Hager did not begin her career as a travel agent -- she has a teaching degree and was employed in social services -- travel was a field she always dreamed about joining.

Id always had a hidden passion to become a travel agent some day, she said.

By chance, she happened to see a schedule for a local junior college that offered travel courses.

I went for it, Hager said. I attended classes in the evenings and did an unpaid internship before starting at my first front-line travel agent position.

When Hager entered the travel field, she got her feet wet as a generalist.

All along I have worked in leisure at storefront agencies, selling vacation packages and cruises, she said. Eventually, she grew into a management position.

As the travel manager for Trading Places in Laguna Niguel, Calif., where Hager was first a cruise specialist, she supervised travel agents and was the point person for vendor relations, cruise marketing, agent training and cruise product development.

We established quality service for the travel agency, and I discovered how much I enjoyed writing policy and procedures, Hager said.

Heading home

As much as Hager loved her job at Trading Places, she and her husband decided to move back to their home state of Wisconsin to be closer to family. The move, she said, turned out to be fulfilling on a professional level, as well, when she found a travel agency with which she shared a particular affinity.

Hager joined Burkhalter Travel and Cruise Shoppes to oversee cruise marketing.

Burkhalter Travel has the same corporate culture of customer service that I have, she said.

At Burkhalter, Hager is responsible for cruise print ads, direct mail, training, consumer shows and vendor relations as well as creating group proposals and operating large cruise groups, both promotional and incentive.

Hager slowly got her sea legs from a variety of sources.

I learned how to sell cruise travel from Marc Mancini, John Dalton and Bob Dickinson, she said. I have taken every CLIA class, and now I have my ECC as well as my CTC.

Hager said it is not unusual for the agency to move hundreds of people a day in cruise groups. That being said, a key to success in managing groups is to never lose site of each individual in the group, Hager said.

Some may be new to cruising and terminology and have questions, said Hager.

At Burkhalter, the group department ensures that each client receives information on air safety, ports, ships, guides from tourist bureaus, maps, travel insurance and more.

Key technology

Hager said she believes that ClientBase Plus, a customer relationship management tool designed to provide agencies with complete contact and trip management abilities, has greatly aided Burkhalter to more effectively grow the agencys group business.

ClientBase Plus has helped us to refine our marketing tactics and adjust our online sales and information to meet the level of expertise of our customers, said Hager. This technology is definitely a growth area for us.

Overall, Hager believes one of the reasons for Burkhalters success in the group arena is teamwork.

Success means having great resource people around you: experienced co-workers, progressive owners and cruise line representatives willing to go the extra mile, she said. Here we take the TEAM approach: Together Everyone Accomplishes More.

TravelWeekly.com wants to hear your story. Think youre a good candidate for an upcoming Agent Life? Contact Kimberly Scholz, Managing Editor of TravelWeekly.com, 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

Palau, from above and below

Tony Poe, director of marketing and public relations at Little Rock, Ark.-based Poe Travel, designed a five-night itinerary to Palau, a destination where he once lived (or lounged) for four months. Poe has been noted in National Geographic Traveler magazine for his expertise on Palau.

For sheer volume and variety of wildlife, Poe believes Palau is simply the best diving destination in the world. Nonetheless, diving isnt the only attraction. Snorkeling, sea kayaking and mountain biking opportunities abound. Also, the history and culture of Palau are worth investigating. If diving is the focus, Poe advises that visitors obtain advanced certifications before going in order to take full advantage of dive spots.

Day 1

Travelers arrive in the evening via Honolulu and Guam to the capital, Koror, and transfer to the Palau Pacific Resort. This mainstay still offers the best accommodations, in Poes view. Palau is notoriously limited in the cuisine department, with the exception of sashimi, he said. The resort has a decent kitchen and changes the theme nightly. So travelers wont go hungry. Couples can also dine privately on the powder-white beach.

Day 2

In the morning, clients check in with their dive operator to arrange dives for the next day. Afterward, they can get acquainted with Palau by making stops at the Ngarachamayong Cultural Center and Belau National Museum in Koror. Poe also recommends a visit to the Palau International Coral Reef Center and Aquarium.

Day 3

Morning and afternoon dives are scheduled; the afternoon dive includes a lunchtime snorkel stop at Jellyfish Lake. This inland freshwater lake contains countless jellyfish that have evolved to become stingless due to lack of predators. Poe also recommends a night dive at a World War II shipwreck.

An alternative to diving or snorkeling: flightseeing over Palaus Rock Islands. Day 4

Morning and afternoon dives are scheduled. For nondivers, snorkeling is an option. A thrilling alternative is to go flightseeing over the spectacular Rock Islands. Travelers can stop at the island of Angaur and tour by bicycle to see World War II relics and fabulous beaches.

Day 5

Travelers depart Palau in the afternoon or just after midnight, depending on their preference. Divers should know it is advisable to decompress for 24 hours prior to flying, Poe said. He recommends that clients take a guided sea-kayaking excursion to the Rock Islands to ensure that they leave the appropriate amount of time to decompress before flying.

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

Travel agent looks for Unusual and succeeds

Rich Skinner is very clear on one point: His clients demand quality. So when Skinner, co-owner of Cruise Holidays in Woodinville, Wash., looks for suppliers to partner with, he seeks out companies that provide extraordinary experiences.

We see add-on, customized business as a point of separation for us, he said.

Thats the main reason why Skinners agency is beginning a business relationship with Alaska Unusual, based in Langley, Wash.

Cruise Holidays customers, he said, are always looking for travel experiences that they can add to their merit badge collection.

Alaska Unusual offers programs that will enable them to do that.

The idea, Skinner said, is to offer shore excursions in Alaska that connote exclusivity, such as salmon fishing in Ketchikan with private boats with captains and guides who are very familiar with the local fishing waters.

Agents have to be very selective with the operators they pick because if they choose the wrong [operator] they can alienate the client, Skinner said.

Alaska Unusual offers 70 shore excursions, from private helicopter flights that follow the Iditarod dog sled race to seaplane flights to hard-to-reach Tlingit villages.

Alaska Unusual has even arranged for a bar mitzvah in a Tlingit Native longhouse during a port call in Ketchikan.

We can arrange out-of-the-box kinds of things, said Michelle Glass, Alaska Unusuals director of marketing and sales.

Glass added that the company works hard to make the travel agents life easier.

Alaska Unusual only works through travel agents.

We dont market directly, said Glass. Our job is to make the travel agent look good -- and we dont care if consumers know about us. We care that the travel agents know about us.

Alaska Unusual will work with retailers on a net or commission basis, whichever the agent prefers.

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.

Marc My Words

Engaging the enrichment niche

By Marc Mancini

Do you sometimes like to watch PBS, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel or the Learning Channel? Do you read novels that re-create, say, what daily life was like in ancient Rome? If you went to Paris, would a visit to the Louvre be a must-see? (The Da Vinci Code made it even more famous than it already was.)

I must confess that I do. For me, its sort of an informal, continuing-education program, one that nurtures my mind, helps me in my job and provides me with all sorts of facts and insights, some valuable (thanks to Rick Steves, I now know how one can get a tour of the White House -- its not as easy as it used to be) and some that are just plain strange. (A PBS Nova episode recently explained how Ramses Is long-lost mummy recently turned up in Niagara Falls. Dont even ask.)

If you relate to these examples, you at least partly belong to what is sometimes referred to as the enrichment niche. (Theres another name, culture vultures, thats sometimes used, but Im afraid that it conjures a rather unpleasant image.)

Its a huge market, one thats surprisingly untapped by travel agents -- except for those whose offices are located near a college or university.

What should you know about this market? Enrichment-oriented clients, of course, take sheer delight in getting to know something. They feel that knowledge makes them better. They usually do a lot of research before taking a trip, and their desire to go someplace is often triggered by an article in, say, National Geographic.

They may be very active; those who are often overlap the adventure market. Theyre comfortable with simplicity -- its OK with them if their stateroom on a small expedition vessel is bare bones.

When they cruise, they prefer a great onboard lecturer -- hopefully an expert who also communicates well -- to a Vegas- or Broadway-style show. When they take an escorted tour, they expect both the tour manager and step-on guides to know their stuff.

What about their demographics? Theyre older, well-educated and are willing to spend far more for an enrichment type of product than they would for a regular vacation.

Theyre attracted to exotic destinations or familiar ones that can be explored in a deeper way. There are many singles in this niche. To appeal to them, find a supplier who doesnt charge double for a single traveler.

But heres the difficult part: They tend to bypass travel agents and buy direct from the supplier.

Why? Because they fear most travel agents cant relate to their needs. So how can you capture their business? The best way is to set up an alliance with a school, museum or society and operate a special tour or cruise for them, with some of the proceeds going to their cause. You might even consider chartering an entire ship for them; many of the vessels accommodate just 100 to 200 passengers.

When dealing with individual clients who fall under this category, address some of their hot buttons, like learning and personal growth. Sell the guides, onboard experts and destinations, then everything else. Provide them with learning materials, like from Intelliguide (formerly Weissmann Travel Reports).

And try to incorporate cultural encounters with locals, such as an excursion to a village in Tanzania or a Norwegian Coastal Voyage, where local people interact with onboard guests; the companys vessels are part cruise ship, part local transportation. Also, find out about and sell suppliers that understand the needs of enrichment-oriented clients.

Marc Mancini is an industry speaker and consultant who teaches at West Los Angeles College.

Five Things

Ways to become more credible with clients

1. Create a unique selling proposition. If great brands are about relationships, then individuals have the greatest opportunity to brand themselves, said Gary Sain, chief marketing officer and partner at Yesawich Pepperdine Brown & Russell. It is imperative that retailers develop brand concepts, primarily through specialization, which set them apart from the pack. If you are one of 100,000 travel agents, why should the customer buy from you? Sain asked. If you are an expert in Mediterranean cruises you have to have a knowledge and focus that elevates you from all others.

2. Be relevant. Know your customer -- not just their names, addresses, phone numbers and ZIP codes, Sain said. It behooves retailers to obtain more personal information about clients, such as their hobbies, cuisine and other lifestyle preferences.

3. Obtain credentials that mirror your expertise. Travel industry designations, such as certifications offered by the Travel Institute and CLIA, provide agents with credibility. These designations reinstate agents commitment to higher education and being the best in their fields, Sain said.

4. Stress the value of using a travel agent. A lot of people assume that travelers know what agents do, said Sain. I guarantee you that they dont. When talking to prospective clients, he said it is imperative that travel professionals expound on educational credentials and other concrete reasons why using a travel agent is of value. Tell them youre a time- and energy-saver, and you have insight that they cant get anywhere else.

5. Dont sell off a brochure. Sell off experiences, said Sain, and dont sell any product you have never experienced, because seeing is believing. In the end, an agents travel experiences and product knowledge are what reinforces credibility with the customer. Its one thing to talk about the experience, he added, but delivering the experience is where the key is.

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