he theme of this year's Travel Weekly Conference held in Chicago last week was Customer Relationship Management, or CRM.

Simply put, CRM is the art of building rich customer databases that help you make exactly the right offer to exactly the right customer at exactly the right time.

For instance, a travel agent might set up a database with fields that indicate a specific client is a cruiser who loves the Caribbean, is willing to pay about $200 per night, and always takes a vacation right after Labor Day. Armed with that info, the agent can make a timely call -- proactively -- to the client with an offer that'll sound too good to refuse.

Most of the discussion at our "Hi-Tech, Hi-Touch" conference about CRM revolved around customer databases set up by travel agents. But we were reminded that travel agents, too, are someone's customer.

Lori Zahn, director of CRM for Group Voyagers, the parent company of Globus & Cosmos tour operators, revealed at our supplier panel that Group Voyagers has set up a CRM program designed to capture information about travel agents.

"We pay for performance," Globus & Cosmos director of sales Doug Duncan said after the panel. "Agents' performance levels are tracked, and they can achieve levels of silver, gold, platinum and diamond in our system."

The system is designed to help the tour operator and agents achieve mutual goals. "Working with so many suppliers, it's hard for agents to track their performance with any one operator," Duncan noted.

"But our system tracks sales levels and will proactively notify an agency if, for instance, they're within $5,000 of the next level. Agents can see that if they move just a little more business, they'll get a higher commission rate, retroactive to the beginning of the year."

"Our main objective is to help our travel partners generate business," Zahn said.

Agents are important travel partners, responsible for 99%-plus of Globus & Cosmos business. And if a travel agency has a client database, the tour operator will help the agent with timely mailings.

I asked Zahn and Duncan if agent databases were, by and large, in good shape.

Duncan estimated that only 25% to 35% of the databases he sees are "sophisticated"; the others fall short in some ways. "It's critical that more agents become sophisticated in CRM -- it's part of the value story they bring to suppliers."

What's missing from most agents' databases? "We like to see e-mail addresses," he said. "They're as critical as street addresses and phone numbers."

"A good database has to have up-to-date, recent information," Zahn added. "And it has to be relevant to us -- for instance, it's very useful to know a traveler's style. Do they like adventure travel, historical travel, beach experiences, learning experiences? Do they want to see 20 countries in 20 days?"

"The history of their vacation experiences is also important," Duncan said. "It's helpful to try to match their preferences for price and duration of time they like to travel. And any planning information you may have is very useful: If you know when they like to travel, it helps us help you put the right material in front of them at the right time of year."

"It's even useful to know how long it takes them to make a decision," Zahn added.

Inputting information to a database is not one of the most fun or glamorous aspects of travel agency work. But putting together an up-to-date, rich data source can help travel agents make the trip they enjoy the most -- the one to the bank.

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