Whether it's for a hotel room upgrade or extra attention from a ground operator, Trish Mercer rarely gets a “no” from travel suppliers. It could be the Georgia pecans she sends as a thank you. More likely it's her reputation for attentive service and conscientious follow-through on almost every aspect of her clients' travel itineraries. Mercer, a home-based travel agent based in Columbus, Ga., started as a travel agent in 2003 by taking an unlikely path: joining a travel agent card mill. She had adjusted to life back in the U.S. after living as an Army wife in Ansbach, Germany, for three years with her Army officer husband. During that time, she and her husband chose not to live on base but in a small German town. She learned to speak German and traveled extensively, visiting 27 countries, including most of Europe as well as Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, often on her own. 

Mercer also worked at an American military base in a civilian job helping run the soldiers' recreation centers and handling arrangements for USO groups that visited. When she returned home to the U.S., Mercer joined a Fortune 500 company in a sales job, where she also learned about customer service.

The travel bug had taken hold during her Germany years, however, and didn't let go. At the urging of friends who were impressed by Mercer's ability to often land great travel deals, she signed up with a card mill, enticed by its offer to join the travel industry. She soon learned it wasn't really a good fit.

“They only want people who can refer other people to them. They're not really set up for people who want to sell travel,” she said.

Mercer found a legitimate travel agency that hosted her for a couple of years while she honed her travel sales and developed a client base. Along the way she met Virtuoso agents at cruise and other industry events, always impressed with the travel agency network's level of expertise and professionalism. She started Georgia Travel Experts, an affiliate of Travel Experts Inc., a Virtuoso agency, in 2005.

“I was at a CLIA training [session], and I heard Virtuoso agents talking about 'lagniappe,' the word for giving a customer something a little extra,” she recalled. “They were doing something that I already did, and I thought I would be a good fit with a Virtuoso agency.”

Mercer's “little extra” doesn't just go to her clients. It extends to her suppliers.

“I like to send them 'thank you' gifts,” she said. “If a hotel does a fabulous job for my clients, I let them know it. If a client writes to me something particularly nice about a supplier, I cut and paste from their note and send it to Virtuoso and the supplier so that they both know. And I send something as a thank you. Usually, it's pecans from Georgia. My relationship with my suppliers is so strong I never get a 'no' from any of my requests.”

Another of Mercer's consistent business practices is to follow up with her clients after a trip. Not only does she check in to ask about their trip, she asks them to write her a report of their impressions and experiences. They're usually happy to respond and eager to share.

“I was just on a river cruise in Europe and had a client on another river cruise with a different supplier. She wrote me up a report, and it was really clear the differences between our cruises. It's information that I can use,” she said.

Although she started as a cruise specialist, Mercer has expanded and now sells the world, with a heavy emphasis on land tours. Her No.1 sales product is hotels.  

“I'm seeing a big growth in European river cruises. Travel in the U.S. also is growing and getting huge. Central and South America is also growing. I do a lot of Alaska and Costa Rica, both places that I know well and that I love,” she said. “I don't really specialize in anything in particular. I'm a generalist. I may be one of the last generalists out there.”

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