PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten -- The Internet, the airlines, the hike in gas prices and the drop in personalized services -- not to mention villas, timeshares and outsourcing -- were hot topics for a group of U.S. travel agents that congregated recently in a hotel conference room here.

This was no random gathering but rather the annual meeting of Sonesta Hotels, Resorts and Nile Cruises 12-member Travel Agent Advisory Board.

The board members are travel executives who advise Sonesta on industry trends, marketing strategies and new developments, according to Sonesta President and CEO Stephanie Sonnabend.

This years meeting took place at Sonestas newest property, the 534-room Maho Beach Resort and Casino in St. Maarten, which was branded a Sonesta property in July 2004.

Although several advisory board members were unable to attend due to a hurricane threat to the Gulf Coast and Florida, those who were there proved to be well versed in trends and issues.

Nancy McLemore, director of hotel services at TraveLeaders in Coral Gables, Fla., was typical.

A former TWA employee for 30 years, McLemore started out as an international reservations agent in Miami. She moved up through TWAs ranks and eventually switched to the retail side of the business years later.

Now McLemore contends with the Internet.

All of us see the benefits of the Internet, which allows our clients and us access to research wed not dreamed about before, she said. While we as agents have learned we can exist very well with the Internet, a lot of our customers have had bad experiences with it.

They see some great deal online and they book it but come to us after theyve been burned by a misrepresented tour or hotel or airline experience.

On the upside, these customers often then prove fiercely loyal to a travel agent and send us referrals, as well, she said.

Niki Yianilos, managing owner of Esprit Rainbow Travel in Bethesda, Md., agreed that the Internet generates interest in travel among consumers.

But sorting through the information and booking the arrangements overwhelms many of them, Yianilos said. The smart ones come to us to handle complex bookings.

Little did Yianilos know how true the slogan her agency adopted in 1986, Personalized service in the automated world, would ring 19 years later.

That motto has ramifications now that we had never dreamed of back then, she said.

Service fees and niche markets, terms and concepts not bandied about even 10 years ago, are now an accepted part of doing business for these agents.

When I tell my clients that Im charging them a $35 service fee, theyre fine with it, Yianilos said.

Other board members agreed, although fee scales and policies differed by agency.

Yianilos charges a service fee for her cruise bookings, while for her part McLemore charges $50 per person for an FIT booking to Europe but no fee to get her clients by air to the departure point for a tour package.

I just sent a big tour group to China, and I told them to use their [frequent-flyer] mileage to get to San Francisco for the departure, she said. Those who did not have enough mileage went on the lowest fare I could find, but I did not charge them a fee for the service since theyd bought a big tour.

Maura Watson, with Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Canton, Mass., said the survivors in the agency business have developed niche markets and mapped out plans.

We cannot stay on top of everything, but if we are on top in our specific area, that becomes the selling factor, she said.

As a niche, destination weddings, especially in the Caribbean, are both lucrative and easy, board members agreed.

Most of the [Caribbean] resorts have on-site wedding planners who do all the planning and handle the details, Yianilos said. I just sent a wedding group of 100 people -- bride, groom, family and friends -- to a top resort in Jamaica. Everyone was happy, including me.

Industry irritants? Outsourcing is one, primarily due to language and communications difficulties with reservations agents overseas.

It just takes a lot longer when Im spelling a name or a city routing, Watson said.

Another annoyance is the fuel surcharge tacked onto airline tickets.

If it were a uniform fee, thats one thing, but the surcharges are all over the lot, McLemore said. We look foolish in front of our clients, who have been quoted one rate but then get another, higher rate when that surcharge is tacked on.

She talked about a Miami-London booking for next February. When I got the documentation, each ticket was $100 higher than the original quote because of the surcharge, McLemore said.

Another peeve was the lack of sales calls from airline reps.

The airlines used to be our partners, but now it seems that they are the enemy, Watson said.  We used to see the reps every few weeks, but now its rare for them to stop in at the agency.

McLemore said the frequency of sales calls depends on agency location and business volume.

Another trend that had board members worried: The failure of the retail side of the industry to attract young people.

I dont see many people coming up behind us, Yianilos said. The pay isnt great, and its a hard sell when other jobs offer more money, better security and long-term benefits.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].


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