Costa Rica: Agent to Agent

When Melanie Amos, co-owner of Avant Travel in Lexington, Ky., brought a group of doctors to Costa Rica in February 1998 she was so taken with the country that she immediately set about organizing another group trip to Costa Rica.

Then she organized another one, and another, and another. Within just 13 months of that first trip, Amos had escorted a total of nine groups to Costa Rica. "You get pretty innovative when you find a place you really like," she says.

"When I realized how beautiful a country Costa Rica is, how beautiful the people are, how pretty the countryside is and that the best way to see it was to ride a horse, I put together some riding groups."

Costa Rica riding vacations are a natural for Avant Travel, in part because the agency is located in the heart of Kentucky's horse country. With Amos' extensive personal connections in the community, promoting the upscale riding vacations exclusively through word of mouth proved to be a snap.

Amos' experience selling Costa Rica supports her belief that one key to successful leisure travel sales is liking the product. "You can always sell if you like what you're selling," she says.

To other agents considering putting together a program for Costa Rica Amos offers this advice: "First of all you have to know who you're dealing with down there, and you have to trust them. A lot of common sense comes into play. Don't make your expectations too high. Set your goals with something you know you can do." Amos says she has made local contacts in Costa Rica through Elegant Adventures, a wholesaler in Atlanta (800-451-4398).

At Explorations, A Travel Agency Ltd., an independent agency in Atlanta that specializes in leisure and adventure travel, Suzanne Ballew sells mostly independent trips to Costa Rica.

Like Amos, Ballew has found a supplier she can trust; in her case, Holbrook Travel in Gainesville, Fla (800-451-7111). "One thing about them is you know they go down there [frequently]. Holbrook is very hands-on with the properties they use," Ballew says.

Ballew, who is an outside sales agent, says she recommends Costa Rica for younger clients who don't have a lot of vacation time but are eager to sample their first adventure vacation.

"I think Costa Rica's right for people just getting started in active travel. It's a very user-friendly country. It's not very intimidating; it's safe, and the infrastructure is very good."

When matching clients to a Costa Rica vacation it's important to qualify them carefully, Ballew says. "You have to find out what their vision is, what they picture themselves doing. Do they like to go birding? Whitewater rafting? How old are they? How much do they want to move around?

"Determine if they want to go to the beach, because that always takes a couple of days." While it's easy to accommodate requests for beach stays in Costa Rica, Ballew says she doesn't recommend the destination to clients interested in strictly a beach vacation. "I don't think the beaches in Costa Rica are that great, [though] it's a nice way to end the trip."

Ballew cautions agents not to be fooled by Costa Rica's relatively small size when planning itineraries. "It takes a lot longer to get around than you think it's going to take," she says.

Ballew also recommends that agents urge clients to stay for several nights at most destinations within Costa Rica. "A lot of people want to go to Monteverde for one night. When you look at it [on a map], you think you can do this. But it's not so easy."

Ballew has traveled to Costa Rica twice and she says her firsthand knowledge of the country comes in handy. Clients also provide insights about the destination, she says. "We always talk to our clients when they get back and debrief them. We find out what they liked and didn't, so we can fine-tune it."

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