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
This was no
random gathering but rather the annual meeting of Sonesta Hotels,
Resorts and Nile Cruises 12-member Travel Agent Advisory
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.
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.
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
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
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
On the upside,
these customers often then prove fiercely loyal to a travel agent
and send us referrals, as well, she said.
managing owner of Esprit Rainbow Travel in Bethesda, Md., agreed
that the Internet generates interest in travel among
through the information and booking the arrangements overwhelms
many of them, Yianilos said. The smart ones come to us to handle
Yianilos know how true the slogan her agency adopted in 1986,
Personalized service in the automated world, would ring 19 years
That motto has
ramifications now that we had never dreamed of back then, she
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
When I tell my
clients that Im charging them a $35 service fee, theyre fine with
it, Yianilos said.
members agreed, although fee scales and policies differed by
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
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.
with Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Canton, Mass., said the survivors
in the agency business have developed niche markets and mapped out
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
irritants? Outsourcing is one, primarily due to language and
communications difficulties with reservations agents
It just takes a
lot longer when Im spelling a name or a city routing, Watson
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
McLemore said the
frequency of sales calls depends on agency location and business
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.
reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].