Conde Nast listings a boon to agent specialists

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NEW YORK -- Many retailers featured in Conde Nast Traveler's annual installments highlighting agent specialists reported dramatic results from the publicity: volumes of e-mails and phone calls and significant rises in bookings.

But for others, the exposure provided more headaches than anything else, in the form of casual browsers.

The Conde Nast specialist feature, written by reporter Wendy Perrin, debuted in the magazine's June 2000 issue. This year's installment appears in the August 2001 issue.

Many of the agents featured in the articles spoke to Travel Weekly about how the experience has affected them. Here are some of their responses:

• Terry McCabe, president of Stratton Travel Management in Oakland, N.J., was listed in the latest issue as a Caribbean and Beach Vacations expert in the article titled, "My Adventures With Travel Agents."

Last year, she was cited for her Caribbean expertise in an article called "Miracles Are Us."

"Since the magazine hit the stands a few weeks ago, I've gotten over 100 phone calls from new clients -- about 10 to 15 a day since the article first ran," she said. Last year, McCabe booked 15 to 20 upscale bookings from 50 inquiries.

• Raymond Kane, president of Pisa Brothers Travel Service in New York, reacted negatively to his June 2000 listing and decided not to participate this year.

"Being listed was more trouble than it was worth because we got only speculative phone calls," he said. Kane described the 2000 issue's list of categories as too general and unorganized.

Kane said his experience with leads has been that when they come in from client referrals, they are qualified and serious, but with leads generated by national publicity, the conversion factor and intent to buy are much lower.

• Keith Waldon, spokesman for upscale marketing consortium Virtuoso, said the 2000 list increased business by more than $16 million for member agents who made the roster.

• Susan Maurer, Landmark Travel, Orinda, Calif., has gotten a "huge response" this year -- about 60 phone calls the first week the article appeared.

Maurer, who is listed as a Spain specialist, said she is thrilled, but the response presents a challenge: how to handle the potential new clientele and distinguish serious travelers from those merely shopping around for the best prices.

She likened her listing to the specialist search on Virtuoso's Web site: In both cases, she must determine how to handle lead generation without wasting time with lookers.

• Barbara Gallay, president of New York-based Linden Travel Bureau, said this year's mention (Hotels, Resorts and Villas -- Best Service) has attracted better quality inquiries than last year's. "We've had fewer calls and e-mails but have completed two trips, with three in the works."

Last year she had 100 inquiries, but only 10 booked. The Linden Travel Bureau agent listed for rail travel has had calls for information, but no one has booked, she said.

Gallay added that she expects to see more activity in September when people get back from summer vacations and are ready to plan again, "but a lot depends on the economy."

• Phoebe Weinberg, owner of Greatways Travel in Grosse Pointe, Mich., who was listed under hotels, resorts and villas for best ambience and under southern Africa safaris, saw an increase in business since last year when she was first spotlighted.

"As a result of the [2000] article, I got 80 new clients and very considerable growth. For every three calls or e-mails, one booked," she said. She has received nearly 10 bookings from the recent piece.

"What's been heartwarming is that since last year's article, I've had people come back and book travel other than safaris," she said. "I was amazed by how something in the consumer press is so accepted. This shows that there is a real need for experts out there."

• Agent Stacy Cosme of North Coast Travel in Erie, Pa., who was featured both years as an Iberian specialist, has taken this idea to the next level with lots of local attention. Her town paper ran two pieces, and the local cable station conducted live interviews at the agency.

Cosme said her business has tripled since last year and that she has probably gained 250 clients all over the world. But recognition is nothing new for Cosme, who books travel for Money Magazine, Vogue and Conde Nast Traveler.

• Leslie Fambrini of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif., who was listed under cruises for the Right Ship and Cabin, said she picked up more than 50 upscale bookings, for a 40% growth, since last year, including three complete world cruises and one partial world cruise.

"The type of clients who booked were well-traveled, savvy and sophisticated and liked to do their own research; those who didn't [book] were shoppers, calling about premium brands," she said.

"What brought them to me was [the magazine's] sanctioning me as someone trustworthy. Some clients even came looking to make their travel 'miracles' come true," she said.

Fambrini advised agents not to underestimate the power of the written word or third-party endorsements.

• Roland Largay, co-owner of Largay Travel in Southbury, Conn., and a safari specialist, has used the Conde Nast listings in his firm's advertising.

A local newspaper picked up the story and has run two articles on Largay.

High-scoring specialist stresses value of honesty

SAN FRANCISCO -- For Kathy Bissinger, Bissinger & Associates, San Francisco, the experience of being prominently profiled in Wendy Perrin's August 2001 article in Conde Nast Traveler -- and getting a high score -- confirms her belief in honesty when booking travel.

Bissinger, a Virtuoso agent who planned the Cambodia portion of a trip Perrin took to Southeast Asia, received an A-minus rating in the article.

She said, "If you haven't done something in five years, say it. Occasionally someone asks me to do something in a place where I'm not sure about ground operators, and I tell the clients honestly about that. Don't pretend you know something you don't."

Her second lesson is to use the best ground operators you know. "My job is to work with excellent ground operators and match the client to the itinerary," she said.

Bissinger said the best way to ensure clients a good experience is to use a reputable ground operator you respect that has complete control over all the arrangements, guides and vehicles and does not contract out portions of the itinerary to other ground operators.

She added that one of the things agents have to ask operators, besides whether they are building in another middleman by contracting out portions of the arrangements, is whether they have their own employees working in each country visited on an itinerary.

Cookie Anspach Kohn and her husband, Henry Kohn, of Anspach Travel Bureau, Highland Park, Ill., attempted to book Perrin on a satisfactory itinerary to Laos but ended up with what Perrin described in her story as a "disastrous" experience.

This situation occurred because the ground operator did not have on-site staff and passed Perrin off to another operator without notifying Perrin or her agent.

Perrin did not blame Henry Kohn, her agent for the Laos leg of the journey, because he tried to persuade her to use Abercrombie & Kent as a ground operator and she refused.

"I can't grade Kohn on this trip because I'm the one who deserves an F," she wrote. "I made the big mistake of not letting him use the tour operator of his choice. Nonetheless, he offered a 50% refund."

Author discusses blueprint for the series

The following is an excerpt from an interview Travel Weekly retail editor Michele SanFilippo conducted with Conde Nast Traveler consumer news editor Wendy Perrin about her recent articles on using agent specialists.

Travel Weekly:How did you come up with the idea to write this now-annual story on travel agents?

Perrin: The idea came from all of the readers who have called me over 12 years asking for advice on different destinations, cruise ships, itineraries, etc. Initially, I started recommending different agents who specialized in the particular aspects of travel they were looking for, but eventually I thought a list of specialists who had been tested and approved was necessary.

TW:How do you come up with the agents in the articles? What are the criteria?

Perrin: I look for an agent's position in the industry, clout, connections and firsthand knowledge of the places or types of travel. I wanted agents who had been to the places 20 or 30 times and were on a first-name basis with local contacts. I only recommended people I knew were going to take the time to help our readers, based on my impressions from speaking to them.

TW:Some have said your stories on specialists have been biased toward Virtuoso agents.

Perrin: I would like to point out that last year, about 90% of the travel agents listed were with Virtuoso; this year that number decreased to 72% or 73%. These numbers are evidence that I am open to knowing and listing other agents. The reason I know so many Virtuoso agents is that I was a keynote speaker at two of its annual conferences and had the opportunity to meet many members.

TW:Do you ask agency groups for potential recommendations?

Perrin: I have asked Virtuoso and Giants for possible suggestions on specialists, but Virtuoso was the only company that got back to me. I also asked several prominent tour operators and cruise lines for suggestions. I invite anyone who thinks they should be on the list to explain their specialty, give credentials and say why they should be included via an e-mail or letter. If agents have a passion for a destination or specialty, they should tell me.

Laura Del Rosso contributed to this report.

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