recently spoke to the second person in as many months who sells travel for a living but who disavows that he is a travel agent. The first said he simply wants to redefine his clients' expectations -- he is knowledgeable about travel products and destinations, but isn't an agent for specific suppliers, trying to sell this product or that.

The second said he is a "travel marketer, not a travel agent." Eric Maryanov of All Travel in West Los Angeles has sold travel for more than 20 years, but after redefining himself, his business accelerated significantly -- just as most agencies began to feel particularly challenged. He has opened three offices since 9/11, for a total of four. He said he couldn't care less about Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz except to learn from them. In fact, most of his growth has come because he embraces the Web rather than fears it.

In addition to his legacy business -- which, despite his disavowal, most would call a traditional travel agency -- Maryanov has created several Web sites targeting different niches.

The key to his success -- and the reason he doesn't fear the Big Three online agencies -- is because he combines the advantages of the Web and personal-relationship marketing.

"We easily will do $5 million in Web-generated business this year, but $4 million of that will close over the phone," he said. "We build traditional relationships with prospects found in an untraditional manner. Everything on our Web sites drives them to contact us by phone. And the calls are received by what would be thought of as traditional agents who really 'get it': who get the technology, who understand the marketing, who know how to establish relationships."

To build his Web business, Maryanov said he studied what makes a Web site successful. "A consumer is as quick and sharp in qualifying your Web site as you are in qualifying them. You have about 30 seconds. But once you get a Web customer, if you do it right, they will book, they're loyal and they come back again."

Web buyers, Maryanov believes, want someone to validate their research. "They want to hear someone say, 'You've done a great job. Now let's get specific.' Many people who brag that they buy online actually start the process online but buy from a salesperson on the phone."

Once you're convinced your Web sites are well organized and user-friendly, he said, you need to "get creative with keywords."

"Let's say you're paying a search engine to give you high placement with certain keywords. The last thing you want is to pay 40 cents a hit for 5,000 hits on the words 'adventure travel.' It's too broad. Try 'kayaking.' And not 'hiking' -- 'hiking in New Zealand.' "

New Zealand, it turns out, has become a niche for Maryanov since he hired a consultant who's a native New Zealander. "Once they hear that accent -- instant credibility."

Maryanov is focused on preferred vendors, and sees that as a plus for him and his clients. "I know which vendors deliver and which don't. And I know they care about which agents deliver and which don't. I use CRM technology to show a supplier what I deliver to them ... and what I can move to them if they give me marketing dollars."

In the travel industry, it's convenient to use the one-size-fits-all term "travel agent," but as with any label, it tends to impose limits. It's probably less important to drop the descriptor "travel agent" than to take a serious look at what that term can mean in 2003. Those who haven't re-evaluated their job description during the past decade are dying or dead.

The most successful agents build on their past experiences, as does Maryanov. "I like what I do. I'm too young to retire, too stupid to learn a new profession, so I just keep on challenging myself. And I'm happy. I've found that this is the most exciting time I've been in business."


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