Mundo Maya: Agent to Agent

The best thing agents who are sending clients to Mundo Maya can do, says Marie Bridgham, is to "educate people a little about the culture of the countries. I put together a packet for people that I give to them quite a while before they leave," says Bridgham, president and owner of Savvy Travel, a retail/wholesale operation in Burlingame, Calif. Though Bridgham specializes in South America, she has traveled extensively in Central America as well. She says one of the biggest challenges of selling the region is that "people are very naive about Central America. Most people have the idea that anything south of the U.S. is like Mexico. They don't understand that each of these countries has a different culture."

Bridgham says her clients are often surprised by what they find south of the border. She recalls a trip to El Salvador that she took with another agent. "Her husband was having a fit that we were going. I think he pictured us going through the jungle with machetes to get to our rooms. Yet downtown [San Salvador] has some very nice places. One of the nicest hotels I've stayed in is in San Salvador."

Another challenge of selling Central America, Bridgham says, is that "people expect everything to be dirt cheap. That's hard to overcome. They get the idea that they should be able to go for nothing. I stress value, that the cheapest place is not necessarily the best, and that the most important thing is to feel that what they're getting for their dollars is a good return in terms of experience. People just have to be educated that times have changed and these countries are trying to go forward."

Not surprisingly, safety is the other key issue that often arises when selling Mundo Maya. But Elaine Zohn, a travel counselor with Classic Travel in Denver, says that in the 10 or so times she's traveled to Guatemala since she first fell in love with the country in 1975 she's never encountered any problems other than having her billfold lifted one time. "But that happens downtown in any city," she says.

Zohn suggests that clients not travel by themselves in Guatemala. "Go with a reputable tour company such as Clark Tours [a ground operator in Guatemala, (800) 707-5275]. With Clark Tours, there's always a driver and guide and they have radio control and they know where not to go."

Zohn, who spent six weeks in Guatemala in 1991 while her husband worked on a volunteer project, has taken two groups from the Denver Art Museum to the country as well as an international women's group of which she is a member. Zohn promotes her trips by sending out flyers and through word of mouth. She also has staged numerous slide shows on Guatemala. "That's how it gets off the ground," she says. She counsels agents interested in selling groups to Mundo Maya to contact local museums with an interest in the culture, art and archaeology of Latin America. One challenge of selling and booking Mundo Maya can be obtaining information, since tourist boards for several of the countries in the region do not maintain U.S. offices. Bridgham says she gets a lot of her information by visiting the destinations. "When I'm there I get absolutely everything I can." Networking with wholesalers also has proven useful, says Bridgham, who makes a point of attending one Latin American trade show a year.

In addition to reading about the destinations of Mundo Maya, Bridgham recommends that agents check out a Web site maintained by El Planeta Platica, an internet resource for ecotourism in the Americas, at www.planeta.com and look into joining the South America Explorers Club, a non-profit membership organization that provides travel information on Central and South America.

The organization's U.S. headquarters are at: 126 Indian Creek Road, Ithaca, N.Y. 14850; (607) 277-0488; fax (607) 277-6122, e-mail [email protected]

Both Zohn and Bridgham suggest that agents urge clients headed for Mundo Maya to go with an open mind. "It takes a special kind of traveler. I wouldn't term it adventure travel, but it is if you want to make it."

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