ABCs of ski: Agent to agent

When it comes to winter vacations, says Ellen Kalish, manager of the leisure department at Houston-based

Atlas Travel, many clients "know exactly what they want and where they want to go." But, she says, "we also get a fair number of clients who just want to go skiing."

Recommendations made by the ski specialists who comprise a large part of the agency's leisure department, says Kalish, "are always based on qualifying the client. That includes, very importantly, what they're looking for besides skiing. It also means accessibility -- do they want to drive from the airport or not?"

Qualifying can help in sorting through the complexities of selecting the right resorts for these people, she says. "A client might want to go to Vail, but keep costs down. We will put them a few miles away from the mountain. There are ways to send people to upscale areas and cut costs. It's all part of the qualifying process."

While Atlas does deal with a few selected tour operators, the agency does not buy tours off the rack. Whether it uses an operator or not, holidays tend to be customized.

Kalish seeks to maximize commissions by prebooking as much as possible, saying that even equipment rental can add quite a bit to the price of a winter vacation.

Many skiers tend to book early, says Kalish, to insure good accommodations during popular seasons. "Once school starts, people start thinking about spring break. And we book holiday skiing all summer long."

With herself and her colleagues visiting ski resorts regularly, says Kalish, "We have become really good at sharing information. If an agent is trying to help a client and they're not familiar with an area, somebody else will be."

Kalish says the best way to sell skiing to families is to talk about its universal appeal.

"Hands down, it is the best vacation for families, even nonskiers. It transcends generations. You have to tell parents that their teenagers, who ordinarily don't want to go anywhere with them, will go on a ski vacation."

Even the beach doesn't have that kind of pull, she says. Every visitor to a ski resort "does their own thing and then meets for dinner. It offers great continuity for families, who keep going back generation after generation."

Mike Russ, who owns Carlson-Wagonlit Travel in Little Rock, Ark., believes in strong promotion, especially for driving ski business.

Recently, Russ, who has been in business for only two-and-a-half years, joined with

a local radio station and its popular disk jockey to put together a Ski Sale at the local athletic club. Russ, his staff and the DJ greeted members of the club on a Saturday morning to distribute flyers and to have them talk with representatives of Mountain Vacations (800-775-7995), Russ' preferred ski tour operator; and to ski instructors from Banff and from Steamboat Springs.

Following that, the staff, disk jockey and experts returned to Russ' agency to do a remote two-hour feed of the radio show -- all the while promoting several ski programs.

To drum up interest in the show, Russ bought air time on the station for five days before the event, as well as newspaper ads.

That is typical of Russ' emphasis on promotion. "I believe in strong promotion, especially for ski business. That includes newspaper ads, radio commercials and special promotions." He advertises ski packages regularly in the newspaper to establish himself as an expert (he and his family love skiing).

He and his wife also visited many organizations in the past year to drum up group business. "We visited many organizations we thought had the potential for ski groups. Out of that we sold one group of 50 for this season and I laid the groundwork for the future."

Shortly after opening his agency, Russ chose Mountain Vacations as a preferred supplier because, he says, "It

allows us to become knowledgeable about their product, encourages them to co-op on ads with us and helps when there are any problems. For instance, we had a group of eight at a resort where there was little snow last year. The operator refunded the price of their lift tickets and got them tickets at a resort a few miles away that had better snow."

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