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Fun and fortune are in the details (08/30/2004)
By Claudette Covey

On a whim, Bonnie Roth attended a franchise fair in her hometown of Louisville, Ky., in the dead of winter. She passed by a booth pitching pizza franchises and another pitching gumball businesses. “They had a huge, 10-foot gumball machine,” said Roth. “That certainly grabbed your attention.”


But what really caught Roth’s eye was the CruiseOne booth. “It just clicked,” she said. “It seemed like a good fit.”


Roth has always planned cruises in detail for her family, and she was attracted to the idea of specializing within the travel industry. “I don’t think I would have come up with the idea if I hadn’t gone to that franchise fair,” she said.


Roth, who had worked in education for 20 years with a nonprofit organization that developed programs for gifted children, wanted a change. As soon as she learned more about CruiseOne, a franchise that is now operated by Boston-based NLG, she was ready to embark on a career as a travel agent.


Roth also knew that networking would help her get started. “My husband is a pediatrician who’s well known and well thought of,” said Roth. Furthermore, she planned to capitalize on contacts from her previous profession.


“I tell people how important it is to network,” she said. “Even at cocktail parties, people love to ask you about cruises, even when you don’t want to talk about them.”


Roth received her first commission check when she was still in CruiseOne training in 1994. “I was off to a running start,” she said.


She may have gotten a jump-start from her community contacts, but she didn’t coast on them.


“You’ve got to follow up and have that attention to detail. I talk to every single client when they come back,” Roth said, adding that she finds out all the details of their cruise to confirm whether that particular cruise was the right choice. “You have to care about their trip.”


Now, virtually her entire business comes from repeat and referral clients. “You can only work off your networking the first time,” she said.


Roth also made it clear from the beginning that, although she worked from home, she meant business.


“One of the things that concerned me most when I started the business was whether people would be comfortable coming to my home,” said Roth.


So she did everything possible to make the office mirror her professional services. “Table and chairs are decorated in nautical material,” said Roth, “and two portholes serve as windows.”


There’s also a ring buoy hanging from the wall sporting the CruiseOne name.


Her specialty is luxury cruises, and she provides the type of service this discerning market segment demands.


“I fight for them like a bulldog,” Roth said, adding that she keeps after the cruise lines to ensure her clients receive exactly what they’ve asked for.


Furthermore, Roth said she makes sure she knows her business inside and out, paying attention to details -- such as what cruise lines provide shipboard credits when bookings are made with an American Express Platinum card or when a cruise line is offering free air for select sailings.


“My clients will spend $20,000 for cruises, but they still want value,” said Roth. “Some of the wealthiest people are the hardest to sell.”


Roth won’t sell itineraries of less than seven days. “It just doesn’t pay.”


The rewards of selling cruises, though, are not always monetary -- making her clients happy is important, too. One story Roth is particularly fond of telling involves a 78-year-old widower whom she booked on an Africa/Seychelles itinerary.


“He called and asked if it would be possible to add another person to the cabin,” Roth said. “It turns out he’d been dating a woman who was 89, and he wanted to invite her on the trip.”


The only way she would go on the cruise was if they were married, said Roth. “They got married, and this was their honeymoon.”


Booking an additional person on the cruise obviously wasn’t a problem. But Roth had to ask the couple one final question. “I had to ask whether they wanted separate beds or a queen bed,” she said. “They took the queen bed. They were so cute and so in love.”


In the end, Roth said she believes that her tenacity, coupled with CruiseOne’s buying clout and sales assistance, have paved the road to her success.


“I wouldn’t want to be out there on my own today,” she said. “If I were a mom-and-pop [without CruiseOne affiliation], it would be difficult to get the kind of buying power I need.”


As Roth’s business has grown over the years, so, too, has the reputation of the home-based agency community. “Almost everyone is comfortable with the home-based industry,” she said. “Now cruise lines recognize that home-based agents are an integral part of their business.”


To contact Agent Life editor Claudette Covey, send e-mail


The Perfect Itinerary

A taste of Danish history


Tor Jensen, owner of Jensen World Travel in Wilmette, Ill., spent 27 years working for SAS and Thai International before opening his agency in 1993. Today, Jensen, who was born and raised in Denmark, said he is SAS’ biggest producer in the U.S. for the Scandinavia market. This Denmark itinerary, which is part of a nine-day vacation, visits a host of historical Danish villages and cities with stays in castles and castle inns. Jensen, who is also a wholesaler, arranges FITs for agents.


Tivoli Gardens, at 155 years old, is renowned as the worldDay 1

Clients check into the 174-room Strand Hotel in Copenhagen. Jensen recommends travelers take a city tour. That evening, they’ll visit Tivoli Gardens, at 155 years old renowned as the world’s oldest amusement park, for a meal at Groften restaurant.


Day 2

Clients pick up a rental car and take a 45-minute drive across the Oresund Bridge to Malmo to wander through the town’s shopping area and enjoy lunch at any one of the many small cafes along the way. In the afternoon, clients can sightsee on their own in Copenhagen before dinner at Cap Horn, which is known for its traditional Danish dishes.


Day 3

Clients visit Frederiksborg Castle near Copenhagen, continuing on to Gilleleje’s harbor, where they have lunch at Karen and Marie’s. Next, they’ll visit the Gilleleje church to see where Danish Jews were hidden before escaping by ship to Sweden, saving them from capture by German occupying forces in 1943. Travelers then embark on the four-hour drive to Ribe, where they check into the 48-room, 16th century Dagmar Hotel, across the street from the Ribe Cathedral, which dates to 1125. They dine that evening at the hotel’s highly acclaimed restaurant.


Day 4

Clients can stroll through Ribe and visit the cathedral before the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the hamlet of Schakenborg. Along the way, they stop at Romo, an island off the North Sea. They continue to Tonder for a visit, and then go on to Mogeltonder and Schakenborg. They’ll dine and stay overnight at the Schakenborg Castle.


Day 5

Travelers continue to Jutland and Als. They catch a ferry to Bojden that transports them to the Island of Fyn, where they’ll overnight and dine at the classic Hvedholm Castle in Faborg.


Hand in Hand

Micato comes through with last-minute safari


Arranging last-minute holiday vacations  can be difficult. Designing an FIT to east Africa can be virtually impossible on short notice. But it can be done, as Adrienne Forst knows, especially with the right supplier partner. In her case, that supplier was Micato Safaris.


Clients booking a last-minute trip enjoyed an east African sunset at Christmastime, thanks to Micato Safaris, said Protravel.Forst, director of leisure sales at Protravel International in Beverly Hills, Calif., said her clients, a celebrity couple, decided three weeks before Christmas that they wanted to spend the holidays in Kenya.


“They wanted a private safari,” said Forst. Trip components included private cars and drivers as well as private planes, she added.


She said Micato made the travel planning seamless. “They went above and beyond,” Forst said. Patti Buffolano, Micato’s general manager, stayed in constant contact with Forst, she said, ensuring that no trip detail was neglected.


Micato, said Buffolano, can get things done seamlessly partly because its ground personnel are Micato employees, not outside contractors. “Some other companies work with local ground operators where they negotiate back and forth,” she said.


Furthermore, Felix Pinto, the company’s founder, works in Africa, Buffolano said. Since the Pinto family owns the company, it is able to make decisions without the red tape getting in the way. “That’s what separates a mediocre company from a great one,” Buffolano said.


Buffolano credited Micato’s on-site staff in east Africa for making the trip so successful. She added that she communicated with Forst regularly to ensure that plans were progressing smoothly.


In the end, said Buffolano and Forst, the clients were thrilled with the trip and plan to return to east Africa soon.


“We bend over backwards for Adrienne and Protravel,” said Buffolano. “They’ve been great supporters of Micato Safaris for a long time, and we work very closely with them.”


Turen’s Tips

A business niche brainstorming session


Richard TurenIt has been more than a year since we looked at some new niche concepts. Here are a few ideas for tapping into some relatively untapped corners of the travel market:


Digital travel and tours. Sales of digital camera equipment is hot. Since so many clients are now carrying digital cameras on vacation why not specialize in that market with after-trip services, photography and digital computer in-office workshops, and even free camera equipment for clients above a certain price level? The linkage virtually is unlimited with lots of cross-selling opportunities.


Sell islands exclusively. Quick -- which agency in your town sells island-based vacations exclusively? Probably no one, yet a high percentage of your clients dream of island-based destinations. Wouldn’t the small-island tourist boards be thrilled to have you in their corner? And your tag line is easy: “Every vacation should be surrounded by water.”


Un-tour tours. An excellent demographic for boomers and, particularly, more independent Generation X’ers who crave the pricing benefits of a tour without the desire to follow the lady in the huge hat through the Louvre as she waves her yellow umbrella. Tours would be filled with free time and all independent sightseeing, with dining credits instead of group meals. In short, the only thing the group would do together is travel from place to place.


At-home agents. More and more travel professionals are working out of their homes, but precious few are visiting clients in their homes. A “by evening appointment” service with well-qualified couples could be lucrative because virtually no one is advertising this service. Most of your clients will not want this service. But if 20% do, you’re rich.


72 hours travel. A travel firm that does nothing but long-weekend travel. Develop this niche wisely and the repeat factor will mean that your average client books with you four or five times a year. With volume you can negotiate overrides with the best B&B and small boutique hotels within driving distance of your community.


Security-enhanced tours. This is a niche I have advocated for some time.  Someone is going to launch an escorted tour program that features undercover security guards. All other things being equal, do you think that you have clientele that would go with a tour that had a qualified security consultant walking behind the group by day and accompanying them on evening forays?


Double couples travel. One of the new concepts we’ve developed goes after one of the fastest-growing demographics in the leisure industry, couples traveling with other couples. A travel firm that was devoted to multicouple travel could offer numerous real and perceived benefits including a myriad of more cost-efficient private-driver options.


Themed cruises. There is a tremendous market for themed cruise itineraries. Affluent readers, for example, of the same horse breeders’ magazine might enjoy one another’s company on a cruise, and so would avid stamp collectors and Web designers who could trade ideas and techniques. This is a field that is only limited by one’s creativity. Many specialist magazines still do not have any themed cruise advertising.


Industry consultant Richard Turen owns the vacation planning firm Churchill and Turen Ltd., based in Naperville, Ill. Contact him at


5 Things

Ways to avoid rebating


1. Do the math. It can actually be more profitable not to rebate, said Jeff Gordon, president of the Gordon Group, a travel agency based in Davie, Fla. “Say you do $3 million of business with 3,000 clients,” he said. “Let’s say you’re a rebater and you’re rebating back 10% to clients, making 15% commission and keeping 5%.” The agent will make $150,000. Conversely, if you don’t rebate and hold on to the 15% pay and do business with 1,500 clients with a volume of $1.5 million, “you’ll make $225,000 in half the time it took you to make the $150,000.”


2. Seek affinity group business. Retailers should bring clients with similar interests together, said Gordon. “You’ll find that clients with common interests inspire greater sales,” he said, adding that retailers should stress the exclusivity of the common interest of the clients. “It could be people who knit, who like rock ‘n’ roll or astronomy,” said Gordon.


3. Look for incentive group business. “Incentive group business requires substantially more  servicing from the agent,” Gordon said. Retailers should let the client know that services come with a price, but that the expertise is invaluable. “We have no problem tell- ing them it requires a lot of servicing and it’s valuable and we can’t work for nothing,” Gordon said.


4. Capture more promotional group business. By reserving generic group space agents can take advantage of amenity points provided by the cruise lines, which add value for the customer. Amenity points, can, among other things, provide fare reductions for the group. “Clients see these incentives as a bonus and are less likely to try to negotiate a better rate, said Gordon.


5. Just say no to rebating. “Just have the guts to say no and turn away business that’s not profitable,” said Gordon. “If you get clients on price you’ll lose clients just as quickly when the rebater comes along,” he said. “Seek out those clients who appreciate your value and expertise and they’ll refer similar people who will appreciate you.”


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