China: agent to agent

For agents eager to hone their skills at selling China and Hong Kong, there's no substitute for

experiencing the destinations first-hand and learning the ins and outs from the experts, according to several successful retailers with whom Travel Weekly spoke.

"First and foremost, having been there has helped us tremendously," says Jan Magers, owner of Jan's World of Travel in Wayne, N.J.

"We have three agents in our office who have been to China a number of times. Familiarity with the country is very, very important. Also, back home, you have to stay on top of developments by reading -- especially the trades -- and other material, like your incoming news faxes on the destinations."

In discussing China with her clients, Magers says she emphasizes its "exotic appeal -- the fact that it's so colorful and has so many unique cultural attractions to offer, and in addition, has great shopping."

Selling China offers an agent many options, says Magers. "It's big enough and varied enough to visit as a single destination, or to combine with Hong Kong, but you can also sell it in combination with other Asia/Pacific destinations."

When selling China to clients who haven't visited the destination since the days soon after it opened its doors to tourism, Magers says it's crucial to stress that accommodations and services have improved tremendously over the primitive conditions of 15 or 20 years ago.

"Hong Kong, as far as I'm concerned, is the ideal place to go after you've gone to China, because you need a gateway that helps you get back in to the Western world, and Hong Kong has everything you could want in that sense."

Choosing a good, well-connected tour operator for China and Hong Kong is very important, especially, cautions Magers, "as it's just about impossible to get confirmations on flights within China, particularly for FITs."

Magers says her company relies on tour operators, such as Isram (800-545-5540; see Orient Flexi-Pax in tour story, Page 12) a lot, as well as Tauck Tours (800-468-2825), Abercrombie & Kent (800-323-7308), Pacific Delight (800-221-7179) and Pacific Bestours (800-688-3288).

"We don't advertise, but we do have a newsletter in which we feature China and Hong Kong," says Magers, whose agency's business is mostly leisure. "We also have an ethnic clientele of Chinese-American travelers," says Magers.

Although some agents tend to think of ethnic clients as a market primarily interested in visiting relatives and rediscovering their heritage, Magers advises agents who want to develop this business that in her experience, Chinese-Americans, just like other American travelers, book package tours.

Betty Bancalari opened her own agency, Vacations by Design, in Livermore, Calif., in April, after 23 years in the travel business. She recommends attending educational seminars to stay on top of developments in China and Hong Kong, but adds, "just remember to be selective."

"I only want to go to a seminar if I'm convinced it's one that's really going to teach me something," she says. "I have no desire to end up sitting around, reading a brochure."

When Bancalari does attend a seminar that she feels is worthwhile, she takes "lots of notes," then shares them with her co-workers so that they can also benefit from the learning experience. A well-planned seminar she went to several months ago, in fact, helped her choose exactly the right tour for clients who had been researching China programs for some time, says Bancalari.

"The seminar was put on by IST Cultural Tours [800-833-2111] in San Francisco, and it was excellent," she says. "It was just on their China trip, and they did a day-by-day slide presentation, so you knew exactly what you were going to see, which included some unusual things, like a visit to Beijing University," she says.

And when it came time for the question-and-answer part of the program, "they told me exactly what I needed to know."

As a result, Bancalari says, she was able to book the IST China tour with confidence for clients who had been looking for something different than the standard China tour. "This was a couple in their 70s who have a lot of curiosity about things and, like most of my clients, don't want to just sit on a bus or spend all their time shopping."

Best of all, attending the seminar not only increased her own knowledge of the destination but it enabled Bancalari to do what she says is the most rewarding part of being a travel professional, "finding the right tour for the right person."

"You have to get to know your clients really well so when you discuss their trip with them, you'll be able to focus on the things that are important to them," she advises. n

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