ow sophisticated is your marketing plan? Over the long course of your relationship with your clients, are you passive, waiting for them to come to you to plan their travels?

Or are you taking the initiative to offer them travel opportunities you know they'll be excited about, that will have them thanking you for your suggestions and marveling at your insight?

Today's sophisticated marketers employ Customer Relationship Management -- CRM -- to truly get the 360-degree view of clients that ensures high satisfaction and maximum profits. It has been the hot topic of marketing and sales conferences in virtually every industry this year.

CRM is much more than the latest business buzz phrase -- it employs database and internet technology to gain customer equity and loyalty, and it's having an enormous impact on companies large and small. It's my belief that those in the travel industry -- agencies and suppliers alike -- who seize upon it early will have a clear advantage over any competitor who's slow to adopt a comprehensive CRM plan.

The goal of CRM is not so different from the traditional goal of smart businesspeople throughout history: to know their clients well, and use that knowledge to profit by giving customers the products and services they want, when they want them. The more information one can gather about clients, the more effectively one can reach out to them, and the more satisfied customers will be.

Satisfaction leads to repeat business, and repetitive interactions help refine your understanding of customer preferences. This leads to ever-increasing customer satisfaction and helps you make more money per customer over the course of your relationship with him or her than you would have otherwise.

Key to the philosophy of CRM is employment of today's technology to manage this knowledge and use it effectively. The Page 1 story in the Arpil 1 issue of Travel Weekly about a travel agency in Wisconsin is a good example. It shows how one agency used a simple CRM technique to make $45,000 in commissions on a single supplier special that, literally, almost got tossed in the garbage.

Large companies seized on CRM first because they must employ technology to manage customer relationships that can number in the millions. But it is perhaps small and midsize businesses that will best be able to take advantage of CRM opportunities.

In the present environment, travel agents have an advantage because they own the face-to-face, one-to-one relationship with a customer. Smart suppliers seek to exploit this relationship through incentives to travel agents to steer business their way.

The smartest suppliers are connecting with the smartest travel agents, who have used CRM plans to build the type of comprehensive database that's the engine for CRM efforts.

A powerful database, combined with the travel agent/client relationship built on trust, can become the most important asset a travel agent has in the eyes of a supplier. An agent who manages this asset well will be able to work out the best deals with suppliers.

CRM is the theme of this year's Travel Weekly Conference, scheduled for May 20 to 22 in Chicago. We're calling this conference "Hi-Tech, Hi-Touch" because we'll be exploring ways that human relationships with customers can interact with technology to produce the best results for your business.

The Travel Weekly Conference is an invitation to join the relationship revolution that's changing the way business is done around the world. The conference is being coordinated by well-known travel technology consultant (and travel agency owner) Scott Ahlsmith.

Take a look at the exciting program he has put together on Pages 10 and 11 of the April 1 issue, and you'll see why attending the conference is critical for owners, managers and CIOs of travel agencies and suppliers large and small.

Attendees will explore proven best practices and receive step-by-step implementation instruction. Energizing keynote speakers, incisive seminars and a lively trade show and Consultant Arcade will give you the tools you need to put your business on course for growth, starting the day you return home and continuing for years to come.

See you there.

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