At a CruiseOne/Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc. conference aboard the Harmony of the Seas recently I got to hear advice from a panel of "Circle of Excellence" agents whose agencies booked $1 million in commissionable business last year.

The group included franchisees Cheryl Scavron, of Pompano Beach, Fla.; Mara Hargarther, of Ponte Vedra, Fla.; Morrie Frazier, of Clovis, Calif., and moderator Gary Smith, of Springfield, Ore.  All are doing business under the Dream Vacations banner.

They talked about topics ranging from whether and how to hire associates, to BDM relations, to the importance of answering the phone.

Scavron said she decided to take the plunge and actually become a travel agent after surveying the field.

"I called 15 franchises and no one answered the phone. If you want to be in business, you have to answer the phone," she said.

Frazier said he was in the bathroom one Sunday morning getting ready for church when the phone rang. The caller was from the East Coast, and expected to leave a message.

"He said 'what are you doing answering the phone,?'" Frazier recalled. "I said 'I was waiting for you to call.'"

"I got the sale," Frazier said. "We answer the phone."

Panelists generally were cautious about hiring associates.

"You're spending your time coaching, not selling," Hargarther said. "You need at least $500,000 of revenue if not $1 million to have an associate. You need volume and clout to go to bat with the cruise lines. The exception is somebody who already is a travel agent," she said.

Smith, the moderator, said ambitious new agents need to be aware that an agency's cash flow can impede growth.

"You have to spend money today to get paid down the road," Smith said. "A lot of people don't pay attention to the finances needed to grow rapidly.  I'm always collecting less than I need to spend. You need to think about how fast you actually can grow."

Hargarther, who left a job on Wall Street to go into travel, emphasized that agents need a reciprocal relationship with cruise line BDMs, not a one-way pipeline of favors.

"Call them and invite them for lunch or dinner. Ask what sailings they need help with.

"Save your favors from your BDM for something you really need," she said. "A $25 bottle of wine?  No."

Frazier advised beginning agents to keep a book listing the birthdays of everyone they know and get in touch when the date rolls around. It often leads to business, he said.

"If you have customers, ask if they have friends. I spend no more than about 10 minutes on it. I look at it every day," he said.
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