At GTM event, common approaches, concerns

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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Agents attending Travel Weekly's Global Travel Marketplace here exhibited some common characteristics when they talked about the state of retail travel during boardroom sessions on July 24.

Most are specialists.

Michael Brooks of Protravel International in Beverly Hills, Calif., concentrates on high-end world cruises. Most of the ships he works with are all-suite. Commissions can range from $22,000 to $100,000.

"I re-niched myself," said Marcy Gelber of Travel by Marcy in Northbrook, Ill. "Cactuses, cruise ships and palm trees."

Steve Lincoln of Lincoln Travel in Bridgewater, Va., specializes in study abroad programs.

Amy Hobbins of Journeys Unlimited Travel in Green Bay, Wis., specializes in destination weddings and groups. Some are through the local Chamber of Commerce; many are fundraisers for nonprofits.

One agent said she was not trying to attract more customers or grow her business. She keeps her eye on the bottom line and goes for high-margin travel, not volume.

Business may be booming for these agents, but some issues remain constant. Many had trouble collecting commissions from smaller hotels and a few major hotel groups. Some said car rental companies are among the most egregious offenders when it comes to stiffing agents on commissions.

Lincoln said he had written off $50,000 in car rental commissions. Other agents said that they, too, simply write off those commissions, which are usually for small amounts and thus not worth chasing. Often, agents said, car rental companies offer clients an upgrade, which has the effect of canceling out the agent's original cancellation and the accompanying commission.

Brooks said that his agency keeps a list of offending hotels. Agents said that they book repeat offenders through vacation packagers such as Classic Vacations in order to guarantee their commissions.

Time management was an issue for many.

"I want to split myself up," said Neal Miller of Neal Miller Travel in Atlanta.

So they are picking the business that works for them.

Valerie Gossett of Premier Resources Travel in Brunswick, Ga., said that she has more business than she can handle and turns it over to one of 22 subagents.

Miller sends some business to other agents and splits the commission. That way he can focus on his niches, Hawaii and Mexico.

Moriah Turnbull of Moriah's Travel Service in Fresno, Calif., said that she is learning to say no in a professional manner. To help herself do that, she has upped her "plan to go" fee. "If they are willing to pay, I am happy to take the time to do it," she said.

She hates air, but will do it — for a price. She charges a 10% fee. One potential customer called and asked her if he bought $10,000 worth of airline tickets, would she charge him $1,000?

"I said, 'I think I am not the agent for you, but I can refer you to some other agents,'" she said she told the client.

Sherry Kavalin, owner of Elegant Escapes in Lighthouse Point, Fla., said that she specializes in planning travel "for people who appreciate me."

Turnbull said that fams are tougher to come by. She has an agent becoming an Italy expert. Fams to Italy now cost thousands of dollars. She said she did a fam about 10 years ago that Alitalia sponsored that took her to all the major cities.

"Fams really need to come back to that," she said.

Darren Wilson of All About Travel in Louisville, Ky., said that one of his "biggest fights" is educating people about his job.

"Ten times a week I get asked, 'How do you get paid?'" he said. He has built his business through word of mouth, but he is always battling the stereotype that travel agents are dinosaurs.

His business keeps growing, however, because his clients praise him.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.

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