Dutch Caribbean: Agent to Agent

Agents who specialize in the Dutch Caribbean region say retailers should realize that the islands of the Netherlands Antilles are as different as sisters can be.

The ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) can help agencies build strong repeat business with certain types of clients, according to Willard Kravitz of Globetrotter Travel/American Express in Owings Mills, Md. The retailer also operates a tour division called Holidays! (800-638-1832), an official Air Aruba wholesaler. Air Aruba offers nonstop service to Aruba from nearby BWIA, which makes reaching these islands easy from his area.

Kravitz says Aruba has served as the gateway to building a loyal clientele that has made return trips to the island as well as to Bonaire and Curacao. "Our repeat business to Aruba and Bonaire is staggering because so many go back year after year after they get comfortable with the place."

Travel agents can reassure travelers that Aruba lies outside the hurricane belt, Kravitz says, so clients don't have to worry about "having their travel plans washed out."

Easy access from the East Coast, fine weather, ample facilities and international chain hotels make the destination an ideal spot for honeymooners and first-time travelers to the Caribbean. And because of its facilities, Aruba is also a good choice for meetings and incentives groups.

In addition, its relative safety and friendly, English-speaking residents allow nervous travelers to relax, Kravitz says. "It's an easy place to visit. It's foreign and exotic enough, and yet, it's a place with all the comforts of home, so [travelers] don't have to sacrifice creature comforts."

Satisfaction with Aruba trips has led many of Kravitz' customers to book return visits, and as a result, the tour division packages trips combining Aruba with Bonaire or Curacao, or just Bonaire and Curacao without Aruba. Bonaire also happens to be one of the world's top diving destinations, he says.

Agents can rely on materials supplied by the island's tourist boards, Kravitz says. All three islands supply adequate materials, the best of which are the agent manuals distributed by Aruba and Curacao, he says. Nonetheless, no printed collateral materials ever can beat the "first-time fam trip" for its educational impact, Kravitz adds.

Saba and St. Eustatius are an entirely different kind of sale than the ABC islands and St. Maarten, according to Gail Hutchins of All Seasons Travel in Brattleboro, Vt.

Hutchins is a rarity in that she sells several trips to these unusual islands each year. The community she serves is "real diverse, with New Yorkers who have seasonal homes here and a mix of local people, all of whom are looking for vacations that are not in the mainstream."

Usually, she says, her educated, professional clientele have tried everything else and are looking for something relaxing, adding that because her clients are so discerning, "I can't get away with selling what's easy."

The key lure of both Saba and Statia is that visitors can see "islands like they were a long time ago." Generally speaking, she says, these customers are retirees who tend to take FIT vacations no matter where they travel. They tend to stay for two weeks or more, and are undaunted by travel on propeller planes or ferries.

Hutchins says she built her reputation as an expert on these islands one booking at a time, starting with a customer who now owns a home on Saba. "It's probably all been networking from the first person I sent," she says, adding that a few couples she had booked on Windjammer Cruises later booked return trips to these islands through her.

As is the case with the ABC islands, Hutchins cites the islands' tourist boards as the best sources of information.

Although multiple plane and/or ferry trips make getting to these islands a bit of a hassle, Hutchins says the rewards are worth it for those she has sent, giving the thumbs up to interisland ferry service from St. Maarten/St. Martin to Saba and LIAT air service to Statia from St. Maarten.

Becoming involved in the culture is a main draw on these islands, Hutchins says, and she encourages her clients to rent villas or private homes when on Saba or Statia, in order to get closer to the communities they visit.

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