f you owned an established travel agency in the shadow of the corporate headquarters of Intel, E-Bay, Oracle and Yahoo during the high-tech boom of the 1990s, it would seem that you were in the right place at the right time.

Bill Knight, president of All Cruise Travel, has been selling cruises in the San Jose, Calif., area since 1988. And he certainly saw growth during the tech boom years -- among his less-affluent clients were administrative assistants pulling down $100,000 per year.

In the new millennium, he watched as the local and national economies stalled, but saw even greater opportunity than had existed before. Odd as it may sound, last year was his best year ever. Knight finds he can accomplish things that simply weren't possible when Silicon Valley was red-hot and the cruise industry was in its pre-9/11 growth mode.

Case in point: He put together a $1.2 million group cruise last year, selling about 200 of the Crystal Harmony's 470-plus cabins on a San Francisco-Alaska sailing in the early months of the year.

This feat would have been impossible to pull off in the late 1990s in the Bay Area. Knight knows, because he tried.

Knight's a great believer in the power of radio. Not generic radio advertising -- he thinks that's a waste of money -- but in having on-air personalities do in-agency broadcasts ("live remotes") to help him promote specific offers.

When he first approached the radio stations with the idea, they were so flush with dot-com advertising dollars that they couldn't be bothered to listen to his ideas, even though he was willing to pay for airtime.

"Today they're pounding on my door," Knight said. And in some cases, he doesn't have to pay -- the stations are willing to accept a revenue-sharing agreement.

Knight's concept is to match a cruise line's passenger demographics with a radio station's listener demographics, then find an on-air personality who also would appeal to them. To create his $1.2 million group, he matched the profile of the Harmony's guests with listeners to classical music stations and stations playing music from "the Frank Sinatra era."

To seal the deal, he engaged a well-known local radio food-and-wine critic, who also would be aboard the ship.

When he first approached Crystal, the line was interested in what he was doing, and provided modest assistance, but wanted to see how well he delivered before committing serious resources. "Their attitude was friendly, but the message I heard was, 'Let's see how you do.' "

Once he demonstrated how successful his approach was, Crystal ended up picking up about half of his costs the second time around.

"My Crystal district sales manager was great," Knight said. "He helped arrange co-op dollars, special rates, collateral material."

In addition, Crystal helped arrange special onboard programs -- wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, Q&A sessions with the chef and captain.

His on-air personality -- the food-and-wine critic -- joins him for live remote segments in his agency, where they talk about the features of the cruise, and listeners can phone in questions (Knight also has interviewed Adam Leavitt, Crystal's senior vice president of marketing, during a call-in show). Between interviews and answering questions, Knight offers discounts that are available only during a particular broadcast to help close bookings quickly.

He'll do the remotes with as many Bay Area stations as are willing to deal with him, as long as their listeners are in the right demographic range.

"People are afraid of flying, and the increased focus on homeport cruises since 9/11 has also made this possible," he said, noting that he has more choices of sailings from San Francisco than he would have had two years ago.

Last year, he put together five groups, two with Crystal, two with Radisson Seven Seas and one with Holland America.

He has another five planned for 2003, expanding his base and working with Princess, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean ("Oldies and '80s rock stations," he said). He concedes that "this is an odd year," but he's optimistic nonetheless.

"By March, I had already booked about $750,000 for a July Crystal sailing. But I stopped doing the remotes once the war began," he said. "I have plans to start it up again May 5, and I have a strong feeling it will do well."

Before he took over the agency, Knight had worked in the field of electronics. Though he was in the heart of Silicon Valley, he felt there was more opportunity in selling cruises than there was in a technical field.

I asked him if, during the dot-com heyday, he ever regretted leaving his former profession. "Daily," he replied with a laugh.

And, it should be noted that it is Knight who is still laughing.


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