Creative agents can augment their pay on ski packages

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With so many sophisticated Web sites touting ski vacation deals, is there room for travel agents to sell ski holidays -- and make money doing it? There is, according to experts in the market, as long as retailers target the right market and work with the right suppliers.

In fact, many destination ski resorts offer a wealth of off-slope activities and services, which increases the potential for lucrative bookings and higher commissions.

Spa facilities and fine-dining restaurants -- complete with extensive wine lists -- are increasingly available, as are easy-to-learn sports for nonskiers such as lift-assisted snow tubing, snowshoeing and ice skating.

In addition, snowmobiling, dog-sledding and horse-drawn sleigh rides, once considered exotic, are now becoming mainstream.

Beyond the slopes

The key to making money on selling winter sports is to bundle as many components into a commissionable package as possible, rather than just focusing on selling ski, said Ilene Kamsler, president of the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association.

Many travel agents dont realize how many components of a ski package may be commissionable, Kamsler said.

Kamsler suggested that travel agents spend time qualifying clients to determine whether they will be renting equipment, taking lessons or putting the children into ski school, then check with the resort to see whats commissionable.

In addition, agents can book components not associated with the resort, such as the use of a rental car outfitted to carry skis and snowboards.

Resorts vary as to the aspects of a booking on which they will pay commissions -- ranging from accommodations only to the complete vacation package -- so Kamsler encourages agents to develop relationships with suppliers in order to discern which offer the best deals.

Agents should not be daunted by the volume of packaged specials available online, said Kamsler.

Once clients start sorting through the accommodations, especially if theyre not experienced with booking condos, it can be complicated for them to figure out on their own, said Kamsler.

Get educated

There are several strategies travel agents can employ to get in on the action, even if they dont know much about the sport.

Larger agencies can designate one agent to learn the lingo and specialize in the market, while others for whom that approach is not practical can use the resorts as information sources.

Travel agents dont have to be experts on every ski destination, said Steve Janicek, general manager of Vail Cascade Resort and Spa in Colorado, noting that most top resorts have invested significant dollars into their Web sites to educate both travel agents and consumers.

Booking ski is not like booking a five-day stay at the beach, he said. There are lots of moving parts, and resort staff are trained on all aspects of the vacation, such as knowing which properties are ski-in/ski-out, arranging ski rentals and lessons, and selling lift tickets.

While ski resorts offer plenty of standard packages, Janicek encourages agents to customize packages to suit their clients needs. A resort might sell a three-night package that an agent can customize by adding spa or restaurant reservations.

The ski industry is so different now than it was even 10 years ago, and there is a great opportunity for agents to drive their ticket prices higher and increase their commissions, Janicek said.

Operators have the air deals

One of the best ways to boost commissions on ski vacations is to book an air-inclusive package through a ski tour operator, according to David Tanner, president of Rocky Mountain Vacations in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

A typical ski tour operator will have three or four wholesale contracts with major carriers, particularly the ones that fly into smaller airports like Eagle, Aspen and Jackson Hole, he said.

Without those contracts, its hard for an agent to get a good fare, but as long as its bundled into a package, the consumer can get a better deal.

Noting that nearly all packages booked through members of the Ski Tour Operators Association are customized, Tanner said that the air component can even be an open-jaw ticket that arrives at one gateway and departs from another.

This kind of flexibility accommodates the increasingly popular ski safari vacation, whereby clients, for example, can fly into Aspen, ski the four Aspen mountains for a few days, drive to Vail for a few more days of skiing and then fly home from Denver.

To contact reporter Felicity Long, send e-mail to [email protected].

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