Staying ahead of the curve

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Sally Watkins, CTCDo you want to know the secret that set my agency -- Century Travel of Austin, Texas -- on the path to surviving and thriving after the first round of airline commission cuts 10 years ago? A three-week cruise.

When Delta announced its cuts in February 1995, my agencys owners were leaving one week later on a three-week sailing. They decided almost immediately to introduce service fees for clients, even though many other agency owners in our area felt that consumers werent ready to pay such fees.

They acted quickly, they stuck close to their customers -- and Century Travel is here today as a result. From the days of relying primarily upon vendor commissions for our revenues, successful travel agents today depend significantly upon payment from our clients -- and were healthier and more profitable as a result.

Thats the primary lesson Ive learned, as I reflect upon the last 10 years: Travel agents must learn to sense changes around us and get moving in order to stay ahead of these curves. Theres no time for hand wringing or waiting to see how things settle out. The biggest personal change for me in staying ahead of the curve was to find a niche in selling Italy and, more widely, Europe. As a result, I have acquired clients all across the country as well as from other countries. 

They are typically professionals who pay to have their lawns mowed and their houses cleaned -- and they fully expect to pay for my knowledge, expertise and consultation when they plan significant trips.

When a client recently sent me a lengthy itinerary for a trip to Germany and Italy that included a seven-night stay in Tuscany, I reviewed his answers to my client questionnaire (interests, budget, ages of travelers, past travel experiences, goals for the trip, etc.) and quickly recommended one particular property. 

The client was amazed and delighted with how much it matched his groups needs perfectly. Such targeted planning is what clients seek, rather than the overload of information available on the Internet.

Ten years after the Delta cuts, were more than reservationists; we are advisers and counselors who deserve to be paid accordingly. And, weve learned the valuable lesson that many financially troubled airlines today seem to have forgotten:  To stay ahead of the curve, you must act fast and stick as close to the customer as possible.

Sally Watkins, CTC, serves as chairman of the board of directors for ARTA, North Americas largest nonprofit trade organization that represents only travel agents. Travel & Leisure named her to The A-List: Top 125 Travel Super-Agents for her expertise in selling travel to Italy and Switzerland.

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