Agents use inbound to diversify business

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Handling inbound travel is one way that U.S. travel agents -- hard hit by a series of airline commission cuts in the past few years -- say they have managed to diversify their business.

However, this is a travel industry segment that's relatively undeveloped. Inbound travel agents are not everywhere.

That's just fine by Donald Ahlm, owner of Chicago's Nelson World Travel. He calls inbound travel a "survival niche" but is happy that so far there are relatively few agents handling it, because "there's less competition that way."

Pow Wow logoBut he's been into this niche since 1963, bringing in groups from Scandinavia, especially Sweden. Ahlm works with Swedish travel agents who book the air while he puts together land programs, many of them history oriented. "We do a lot of things that bring people into areas where Swedish immigrants settled, such as the greater Minneapolis area, Illinois, New York and Wilmington, Del."

Other preferred destinations include Niagara Falls, since "so many people who went back to Sweden talked about visiting Niagara Falls on their honeymoon."

Ahlm's inbound business -- a significant 40% of his total -- also has natural synergy with another aspect of his operation, wholesaling Scandinavian tours to U.S. clients. "On the initial visit to the States, Scandinavians will come into contact with relatives or people they [become friends with] who will then book trips back to the old country," he said.

Ahlm makes sure to get the benefit of both inbound and outbound travelers as well as operating a regular retail travel agency.

A more recent entry to the inbound fold, Anastasia Mann, chairman of Corniche Travel in West Hollywood, Calif., has been soliciting business from the U.K., mostly through her corporate accounts that have U.K. offices. The British "love to come to the U.S. to shop, where it's still an excellent value for them," she said.

Corniche Travel also has a London division, which helps put together small group trips "with an upscale flair," such as a tour of museums in New York, Chicago and California, escorted by writers and artists. Corniche Travel, which represents Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in an exclusive arrangement, also works with tour operators to bring in groups from Asia, who are then outfitted in baseball uniforms and get to play a game with former and current major-league ballplayers.

Mann said this arrangement is a natural for the Asian market, which has a "huge interest in baseball -- but I think there's going to be interest in other countries." Like other inbound experts, Mann has a lot of interest in promoting U.S. destinations -- in her case, especially, the state she lives in.

Sheila Pollack, meanwhile, has been a long-time cheerleader for the excitement of New York's Broadway, which she has promoted as owner of Sutherland Hit Show Tours of New York. Also owner of New York-based Sutherland Travel, Pollack for 43 years has overseen an inbound business that is mostly domestic, handling theater tickets, sightseeing and other entertainment needs for groups and individual travelers visiting New York.

She said she has tickets to the otherwise sold-out show "The Lion King" as well as for New York millennium celebrations.

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