Diving Vacations: Agent to Agent

In the 10 years since Joanne Belanger began selling dive travel at Accent Travel and Cruises in Morehead City, N.C., she has acquired a healthy client list of divers from around the country and Canada. When it comes to planning their dive vacations, Belanger and other agents say divers want to work with someone who knows what they are talking about, and Belanger, who began diving a decade ago, has the requisite expertise.

"To sell dive travel effectively, you need to be a diver and you need to have been to the destination [you're selling], because you're talking big bucks," Belanger says. "I'm not going to spend $4,000 on a dive trip if I'm not talking to someone who hasn't been there and dived there and can tell me about the dive conditions, the amenities at the resort and what else there is to do."

Now marketing director and group manager for Accent Travel and Cruises, Belanger sold dive travel almost exclusively for her first three or four years as a travel agent. To cultivate the business, she approached local dive shops and offered to put together group trips for them.

To foster relationships with the shops, Belanger has purchased, at cost, gift certificates for the dive shops and given them to dive clients whom they referred to her. Belanger also has encouraged the dive shops to provide additional value on group dive trips.

Belanger gives a one-page questionnaire to dive clients that helps her assess their interests, level of experience, budget, travel time frame and travel preferences.

Among dive travel suppliers, Belanger is partial to working with Caradonna Caribbean Tours (800-328-2288), a wholesaler based in Altamonte Springs, Fla. "They know what they're doing. They have experienced agents, and they give me excellent service."

Susan Fillmore, manager of Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Fresno, Calif., agrees that most divers prefer working with agents who are divers themselves. "Divers tend to be snobbish about nondivers," she says.

Moreover, Fillmore points out, agents need to understand what makes a quality dive destination, as well as which destinations are suited to beginning and advanced divers and the logistics of dive travel, including, for example, important limitations on flying after diving.

Fillmore's experience suggests that agents who have such knowledge can develop a dive travel market niche almost without trying. Though she has done relatively little to promote to dive travelers -- "it's not something I've had a lot of time to pursue" -- Fillmore has developed a dive clientele, largely through word of mouth.

Fillmore also has introduced a couple dozen existing leisure clients to the world of diving. "Usually I recommend they take the diving classes before they go. Most of my clients who learned to dive did their open water checkout dives [the final step in open water certification] on vacation and their classroom and pool training here."

Fillmore advises agents who sell dive travel to take pains to check out dive operators before booking. "They might not provide the dives promised or the accommodations turn out [to be] seedy. Either get firsthand knowledge by going yourself or from a good client whose opinion you trust."

Also, Fillmore suggests, "find a wholesaler to work through." Among her favorites is Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas (800-327-6709) in Miami. "We use Maduro quite a bit for the Caribbean. They are knowledgeable. And they cover enough territory that if I have a repeating diver there's enough variety."

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