Wilderness training

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indy Flint once managed traffic patterns around construction sites in Alaska -- among other things. "You don't only watch out for the vehicles," said Flint, travel agency services manager for AAA Northway in Schenectady, N.Y.

You also watch out for the animals -- be they grizzly or moose. "If you see a mama moose and her calf, you get out of the way. You drop your sign paddle and run for cover," Flint said.

Flint will tell you that her experiences in Alaska have played a crucial role in making her the travel manager she is today.

"In Alaska, you have to be strong to survive," said Flint, who has no problem chopping her own wood. "Alaska taught me a great respect for the finer things in life, and it's helped me a lot when dealing with people." Flint's adventures in Alaska also included a stint as a camp manager for a gold mine as well as an array of retail positions selling everything from fish to tires to lingerie.

In short, Flint said her 21 years on the Last Frontier taught her self-confidence, which has translated into strong management skills that are put to good use in her current position.

Her last career in Alaska was that of travel agent. "In 1985, I decided I really needed to do something special with my life," said Flint. "The state of Alaska had a program for school loans under which if you graduated and went into [a specific] field after graduation, the state would forgive almost all if not your entire school loan." She accepted the challenge in the travel industry and graduated with flying colors.

Flint worked for a variety of agencies that each provided distinct challenges. One corporate travel agency booked travel for the University of Alaska sports teams. "Making bookings for a team of 50 hockey players was a challenge," said Flint. "Especially traveling on the smaller aircraft with all of those bags of hockey equipment."

In 1999, after 10 years of working as an agent, Flint returned to upstate New York, where she was born and lived until she was 6. She left Alaska to help her parents take care of an ailing grandparent.

Two years later, the travel bug bit. Flint worked briefly for Ayelet Tours, a tour operator in Albany, N.Y., before applying for a position at AAA Northway in 2001. She started out as a group travel specialist who worked toward developing AAA Northway's group department.

In August 2002, Flint was promoted to her current position, and along the way she obtained her CTC and Alaska destination specialist designations. She said the two designations have helped her immensely. "It's heightened my presence in the agency," she said. "And it's definitely increased my knowledge and salary."

In her current position, Flint's responsibilities are formidable. As an administrator, it falls on her shoulders to ensure that all six AAA Northway locations in New York -- Scotia, Amsterdam, Schenectady, Saratoga, Queensbury and Plattsburgh -- are profitable.

In order to achieve this goal, she assists and works directly with all of AAA Northway's travel center managers in operating their businesses. She also oversees AAA Northway's group department, motorcoach department and a remote corporate office for the Air National Guard.

Working for AAA, she said, is unique in the travel agency industry. "As an AAA club we are guided by our membership, and we do what is best for the members," she said. "Being a not-for-profit organization is a lot different than those agencies that are out for a major profit."

AAA Northway's commitment to its membership is key to its success, said Flint. "We always stand behind our members; their satisfaction is important to us, " she said.

Another reason AAA is able to stand behind its clients is the rigorous qualification process its preferred suppliers are subjected to before they are accepted into the AAA fold. "In order to become a preferred supplier, they have to go through rigorous background checks, they have to be financially stable and adhere to our quality standards."

Once the preferred supplier is accepted, it must guarantee that if travel issues occur in the booking/traveling process it will assist in every way possible, said Flint. "I have never seen this type of teamwork at any of the other agencies where I have worked," she said.

In the end, though, Flint said everything at AAA comes back to exceeding the clients' expectations.

"We are committed to our vision of ultimate customer service," she said.

To contact reporter Claudette Covey, send e-mail to [email protected].

The Perfect Itinerary
On the road in Morocco

isa Lindblad, president of New York-based Lisa Lindblad Travel Design, created this five-day Morocco itinerary. The agency specializes in high-end, exotic travel. Lindblad handpicks all drivers, guides, hotels and restaurants. This itinerary, which is a segment of an 11-day vacation, includes a private driver and guide throughout.

Fez, pictured above, is Morocco's oldest imperial city and first stop on a five-day itinerary.DAY 1
Clients are picked up at the Casablanca airport for the three-and-a-half-hour trip to Fez, Morocco's oldest Imperial city. En route, they visit Volubulis, a Roman settlement dating from the third century B.C. In Fez, clients check into a Moroccan suite on the garden side of the Palais Jamais. That evening they dine in the hotel's restaurant, Cafe Restaurant Mounia.

Day 2
A full-day tour includes visits to the Merinid Tombs, the Saadian fortress of Borj Nord, the Andalous Quarter and the souks. The venue for dinner is La Maison Bleue, where the proprietor, a friend of Lindblad's, will personally welcome clients.

Day 3
Travelers take a three-hour flight to Marrakesh. They stay at La Maison Arabe, where suite accommodations have been reserved. "The venue for dinner is the Amanjena and its delicious Thai restaurant," said Lindblad.

Day 4
Travelers take a full-day tour of the city with their guide, Hatim, beginning with coffee at the Cosmopolitan Cafe, situated at one of the city's highest points. "A delicious lunch has been reserved at Jnane Tamsna in the Palmeraie, a lovely property designed and built by my friend, Meryanne Loum Martin," Lindblad said, adding that, in September, travelers can visit the establishment's bookshop, gallery and shop. After lunch and a swim, they can go back to town and wander the souks, where Hatim will point out all the best shops. Dinner is at Jad Mahal, the new hip place in town.

Day 5
Clients take an excursion to the High Atlas Mountains. Along the way, they'll visit the Menera gardens and a variety of locations that exemplify Berber culture in its natural context. In Imlil, they visit the Kasbah Toubkal, situated at the foot of Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in north Africa. "After lunch travelers can walk or take donkeys to visit local villages and return to the kasbah for tea," said Lindblad. That evening they dine at Maison Arabe's courtyard res-taurant.

Hand in Hand
Forming a partnership to fill HAL cruise ships

teve Simao, Holland America's world cruise marketing manager, is quick to point out the similarities between AAA and the line. "We've both been in business more than 100 years," he said, "and we've got the same mindset. It's a match."

A case in point is the way in which the two entities work together to promote Holland America's longer itineraries and world cruises through the line's World Showcase promotion.

This year, for instance, Holland America and Tampa, Fla.-based AAA Auto Club South cosponsored a World Showcase at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Fla., which drew more than 500 attendees.

The Ritz-Carlton was chosen, said Patti Urias, managing director of AAA SignaTours, because the property accurately reflects the upscale nature of the Holland America product.

AAA, which was responsible for the guest list, did not qualify attendees on the basis of their cruise resume, said Urias. "If the travel customer has taken a vacation of more than 12 days and spent a certain amount of money, that's the criteria we want."

A week before the lunch, an AAA "concierge" calls the guests to reconfirm. "Having a concierge call is a reflection of the service you get on a Holland America voyage -- the clients love it," said Urias.

For AAA branches in such Florida locations as Port Charlotte and Venice, the agency chartered deluxe motorcoaches to transport guests to the lunch.

Complimentary valet parking was provided by Holland America for those guests who drove.

Presentations took place after the three-course lunch. "There were lots of nice little touches," said Urias, "like Belgian chocolates and tulips on tables" and prizes for guests.

For his part, Simao attributes the World Showcase's success to targeting the right people for the lunch -- and the special attention the guests received. Many district sales managers and AAA staffers were in attendance. "We had the opportunity to mingle one on one," he said. "While the guests are eating we're moving from table to table."

The formula, it would appear, works. Urias said AAA's world cruise sales were up by 37%, and Simao said that 40% of guests attending any of the line's World Showcase promotions book a cruise.

Hand in Hand highlights successful examples of agents and suppliers working together. Send suggestions to Agent Life editor Claudette Covey at [email protected].

Turen's Tips
My favorite question

Richard Turen. was watching "The Apprentice" a while back and there was an interesting moment. Donald Trump had asked some of his senior staff to interview the four finalists. All the finalists were asked to describe how they would define success if they were able to work with Trump for a year.

Now, I wouldn't want to work for Trump for a New York minute. But it was a good question.

There is a similar question we need to ask our clients: How will they evaluate our performance and what exactly do we need to do to score an "A." An "A" means a client who returns and is likely to refer additional business.

The client is Donald. The client is the CEO. The client has alternatives. The client can say, "You're fired."

Of course, clients don't. Instead, they just go elsewhere, often quietly.

That's why I like the idea of establishing a performance benchmark upfront. And the best way to do this is to ask the client something like this: "Imagine, for a moment, that you've been back from your vacation for a year or so. What exactly would our firm have to do to so impress you that, one year later, you think of us fondly and refer us to your friends?"

If that one isn't your style how about this: "I am not interested in providing you with anything less than your best vacation experience ever. Would you mind telling me, as specifically as you can, what I need to do to achieve my goal?"

Sometimes, interviewing a client for the purpose of establishing a performance benchmark can be difficult. Let's imagine that you are meeting with a client who cruises the Caribbean with you every year. And they're back to do it again. I think honesty works best so perhaps this approach to defining your performance benchmark might work: "This will be your 13th Caribbean cruise, and I know you've enjoyed them all. But I'd really like to make this one special for you because I appreciate your business. What can I do to make this one truly memorable?"

In this last example, you may have difficulty eliciting the answer you need. Offer some suggestions. Try to set a benchmark by getting the client to agree to sign off on your offer: "So, if I can do that, this trip will really be special?"

Amid all the cliches about travel selling, there is one truism. Those of you who deal with leisure travel are usually dealing with some of the finest moments of your clients' lives. You need to know exactly what you have to do to produce the best possible experience. The best way to do that is often the simplest. Ask.

Industry consultant Richard Turen owns the vacation planning firm Churchill and Turen Ltd., based in Naperville, Ill. A 23-year industry veteran, he has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's "Best Agents" list since its inception in 2000. Contact him at [email protected].

5 Things
Considerations when creating a slogan for your agency

1. Determine your agency's key benefit to clients. Travel agents have to ask themselves what separates them from the competition, said Kim Gordon, president of Sugarloaf Key, Fla.-based National Marketing Federation, a consulting and information company that caters to small businesses. Agents, she said, must determine what they want people to remember most about the agency.

2. Think about ways to imbed your company name in the slogan. Studies have shown that companies that imbed their names in their slogan had greater top-of-mind awareness from consumers than those that did not imbed their company name.

3. Test your slogan carefully before you roll it out. "You can't simply pick a slogan, throw it out there, try it for a while and see if it works," said Gordon. She noted that there are cost-effective ways in which to test its effectiveness -- such as roundtable discussions. "You might want to do is bring together a group of your very best customers for a luncheon," she said, adding that it is likely you'll obtain excellent feedback from such an event. Gordon also suggested that agents consider using such Web sites as www.quirks.com, which provides a rich archive of technique articles and case histories on how to conduct research.

4. Consider trademarking your slogan. "It's not a bad idea," said Gordon. Agents should make sure that the trademark is available and isn't already in use. Retailers can log on to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site at www.uspto.gov to get further information.

5. Stick with your slogan. "You can't change slogans as often as you change ad campaigns," said Gordon. "It's absolutely essential to keep your slogan in place." Ad campaigns should build upon a company's slogan. "It's the very best way to build a brand recognition," said Gordon.

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