Central America: Tools of the Trade

Not every agent can get to know every destination first-hand. But getting to know Central America has been made easier over the last couple of years by two seminar leaders who have traveled the U.S. to share their destination knowledge with travel agents. They are photo journalist RickFrehsee, a Maya culture maven and expert lecturer for Grupo Taca sales seminars, and Roberto Girotti, Continental's product development director for Latin America, whose long-term expertise is showcased in the airline's Destination Awareness Seminars.

Travel Weekly asked both to share some thoughts on selling the region.

TW: What travelers will most enjoy Central America?

Frehsee: Central America's greatest strengths are its cultural and natural ecotourism superlatives. Clients who like to explore the rain forest or go scuba diving are probably going to be those who will enjoy archaeologically oriented vacations. Any one of these special interests come no better than in Central America, whose destinations are close by and fit in with today's trend in shorter vacations.

And for spectaculars of ancient worlds, there is no ancient civilization closer to us than the Maya in Central America.

TW: How can travel agents new to the region begin to gain expertise on selling Central America?

Frehsee: While there is no substitute for first-hand experience, agents can gain confidence by getting to know Central America's suppliers, come to trust them for the most reliable tour products. They can begin the familiarization process through brochures and Web sites of operators specializing in the area. Also on the Web, some countries have their own sites, and guidebooks provide good background destination and sightseeing information.

Agents who have clients particularly interested in

historical places might pick up a copy of Archaeology Magazine for a start on which wholesalers specialize in presenting Maya history well to travelers on their tours. Local tour guides, by the way, are better trained nowadays, and many have worked on the excavations.

TW: You have said that ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the travel industry. How can agents capitalize on this?

Girotti: It's really easier than one may think. The ecologically aware '90s have seen the birth of a new niche of travelers really pre-sold on stepping into a world of natural -- perhaps exotic -- attractions. Central American destinations are tailor-made for those who want a guided walk or a canopy ride in the rain forest, a half-day snorkle along the Barrier Reef, a visit to a butterfly or orchid farm, an excursion to an Indian village ready to share its customs and hospitality, an easy water-rafting experience. Clients can enjoy all these experiences on day trips from deluxe city hotels or top-class country lodgings.

The more active or adventurous traveler has dozens of special interest options from expert-led birdwatching or archaeological expeditions to serious trekking, horseback riding, white-water rafting and kayaking.

Bottom Line: Agents have to know their clients, know the travel products available for their special interests, and be sure to match traveler expectations to vacation experiences.

TW: Is it really a jungle out there?

Girotti: Sure, if you head for the many national parks that all countries have established for protecting their extraordinary flora and fauna or their Maya treasures. But Central America continues to be an increasingly upscale sale. Agents need to take a good look at the region's infrastructure and services. Take accommodations: Every capital has a good choice of international-class hotels. Resorts by the sea offer every amenity and fine facilities for fishing, scuba diving, windsurfing and (expanding rapidly) championship golf. What we call ecolodges and country inns are some of the most comfortable and charming anywhere. n

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