For Minn. agent, a morning flurry at TW event

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Jennifer Maki meets with suppliers at GTM.HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — It's 9:06 a.m., July 25, at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa. Outside, sun sparkles on gentle waves lapping the beach. Inside the Grand Ballroom, 112 travel agents who together sell nearly $300 million worth of travel are starting a two-day marathon of one-on-one meetings with suppliers at Travel Weekly's Global Travel Marketplace.

Jennifer Maki, owner of Divine Destinations in Cloquet, Minn., two hours north of Minneapolis, is one of those agents. She is looking at 44 meetings in two days.

First up: CSA Travel Protection. It's an insurance provider she sells already, logging in through her host agency, OutsideAgents.com. CSA account manager Bailey Foster and national account executive Wendy Stahl do a quick summation of products they think will work for her.

Maki's best takeaway from that meeting: a sheet summarizing plans and their approximate costs, meaning she won't have to key in all the details about her clients to get a quote.

There's a one-minutewarning, and then Blanca-Stella Lanao arrives at Maki's table. Lanao is the business development director for Un-Cruise Adventures, formerly InnerSea Discoveries, which operates small-ship cruises in Alaska, Mexico's Sea of Cortes, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. Maki specializes in all-inclusives, doing honeymoons, destination weddings and romance vacations in the Caribbean. Alaska is big with the mothers of her brides.

"That's where they all are now," she says. Fathers of the brides love it, too. They're hunters and fishermen; Alaska gives them their wildlife fix.

Lanao sets up her tablet computer and swipes through a series of dramatic photos of whales breaching, rafts cruising through a fjord. Lanao says Un-Cruise spends two days in Glacier Bay with 25 people.

This resonates with Maki. "This is cool, because you don't have the crowds."

A bell rings, signaling the end of the session, and Lanao leaves. Maki has an empty slot with no supplier; she uses those six minutes to check emails from clients and to follow Un-Cruise on social media.

She talks about her 6-year-old business. Maki, mother of three, is so busy that she'd like to take on an assistant but is wary of investing time in training someone who might only be with the agency for a short time.

The bell interrupts Maki's musings, and Marcela Maldonado, sales manager for hotelier Fiesta Americana, sits down. Maki is interested in what's going on with a Fiesta Americana on Cozumel that is popular with divers. All-inclusives are Maki's bread and butter, and Fiesta Americana has just two, but Maldonado paints an attractive picture of what the properties have to offer. Maki takes notes on her iPhone.

'The new Caribbean'

Next up: CIE Tours. Dennis Savage, senior vice president, and John Vavrina, vice president of sales, descend upon Maki, Irish brogues in full force. They ask about her business. Hearing that the Caribbean is her bread and butter, Vavrina jokes, "Ireland is the new Caribbean."

Jennifer Maki meets with CIE Tours at GTM.Maki has used CIE Tours, booking a trip for two retired schoolteachers who had picked up her business cards from a store display. Ireland isn't her mainstay, but she wants to serve clients who want to go beyond her areas of expertise. CIE delivered for her schoolteachers, and she liked working on their trip with CIE's U.S.-based sales staff. Savage and Vavrina discuss building a group tour with net pricing. The bell rings.

Maki has a break and uses it to go over her email. Then Moo Bishop, manager of sales and alumni vacations for Thomson Family Adventures, sits down. Among Thomson's destinations: Peru, Turkey and China. Maki likes the pen pal program that lets kids correspond with kids in the lands they'll be visiting before the trip.

The bell rings again, and Joan Nehls, account executive with Silversea, arrives.

"What would help us improve your revenue?" she asks Maki. She describes the shifting demographics of Silversea and how seven-day cruises bring out the younger set.

Cruises are not a major piece of business for Maki. For one thing, Maki is about all-inclusives, a model that most midtier cruise lines don't offer. And that doesn't work for Maki and her clients.

"The big turnoff in cruises is that everything is extra," she says during a break. But she's learning that there are all-inclusive options. "The caveat here is, will the demographics fit my clientele?"

But Hawaii and Alaska cruises appeal to Maki's clients. They like the mix of land and sea, plus on a multistop cruise, clients don't have to pack up every three days and deal with airport security.

Enter Mary Sue Jurkowski, business development manager for Norwegian Cruise Line. Maki has booked her clients on Norwegian's Pride of America, but Maki has questions for her.

The baggage question

For example, her clients disembark in the morning but have a day to fill before their flights leave. What can they do with their baggage? Maki has asked Norwegian's representatives about this, but they have no answer for her. Jurkowski explains that some Hawaii ports offer a bag-checking service for about $5.

Maki's next appointment is with Todd Bridges, vice president of business development for Collette Vacations. Maki has never booked Collette, but a travel agent friend raved about a Collette Costa Rica trip, and she wants to find out more. He wants to know about her clients.

The GTM clock ticks.She explains that she has everything from honeymooners who want to "flop and drop" at Sandals to people who want to go to Finland. But she also has regulars in their 40s and 50s who want to go someplace new every year.

The morning winds up with a visit with MLT Vacations, which has moved from Maki's backyard in Minneapolis to Atlanta. The MLT reps tell Maki that they can protect any bookings on United Airlines through 2014 even though United is only in the program until the end of 2013.

Lunchtime is approaching, but Maki is still going strong.

After all, this is a woman who started her business when her youngest had just turned 1 and she was home schooling her two older children. "I worked between lessons and naps," she says.

But now she wants to grow her business by working "smarter, not harder."

She's got a vision. And that is being a gatekeeper who pulls in business. She wants to book the trips that she likes to the destinations she knows and loves and hand off the rest to an expert she can trust. And, at Global Travel Marketplace, she's meeting suppliers who can help her broaden her vision and other travel agents who can share their expertise with her.

The bell rings.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly. 

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