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From Tour Operator to Travel Agent

January 8, 2007 By: Mark Rogers Travel Agent

Rick Etherson successfully capitalizes on opportunities

Veteran industry professional Rick Etherson sums up his view
of the travel business in one pithy comment: "This whole business is
nothing but change—change is constant." Etherson, co-owner with his wife
Linda, of Etherson Travel in Knoxville,
, has been involved with travel
for more than five decades.

"I'm not going to tell you how old I am," says
Etherson. "But I was drawn to travel back in 1949." At that time
Etherson was living in Washington, DC and was fascinated with Wyoming
and Yellowstone National Park.

"I wrote to a concessionaire and asked for a job, and
he told me to come on out," he says. "My second year at Yellowstone, I started working as a step-on guide."
In years to come, he shifted into working for the government and traveling
throughout the U.S.,
becoming a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the National
Tour Association.

"In 1968 my good friend Arthur Tauck encouraged me to
become a tour broker," says Etherson. "There was a dormant tour
license in Knoxville, TN, and I started Roger Q Tours." For
20 years, Etherson designed, advertised and operated escorted tours throughout Canada and the U.S. In 1972, the company organized
the largest single commercial movement in Greyhound history when it ran 100
buses to the Billy Graham Campus Crusade in Dallas, TX.

"In 1985 we opened our agency, Etherson Travel, in
order to serve Roger Q Tours," says Etherson. "Then I saw the
handwriting on the wall when they deregulated the tour industry, making the
distinction of being a licensed tour broker non-existent." In 1988, Etherson
closed Roger Q Tours.

In the beginning, Etherson's agency was split equally
between leisure and corporate business. "But as airlines began cutting
commissions, it was a no-brainer to make the change towards more leisure, which
is now 100 percent of our business," he says. "We began to specialize
in selling all-inclusive vacation packages, especially Air Jamaica Vacations
and Sandals Resorts." The company rounds things out with high-end cruises
and vacations to such destinations as Alaska, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Orlando. Etherson laughs:
"You can't clean off the rack any faster than that, baby." He adds,
"I don't mind telling you, we do $1.7 million a year."

Etherson works out of a brick-and-mortar office with a
two-person staff: himself and his wife. He's skeptical about working from a
home office: "You have to make it easy for them to come in and see

Etherson is a Platinum Sandals agent and one of the
company's top producers. When Sandals announced its Sandals-ized vehicles in
the fall of 2005, Etherson jumped in, and since receiving his car in December
2005, business increased 22 percent. He describes the vehicle as a rolling
billboard: "It's helped establish us as the area's Sandals expert,"
he says. The custom Honda Element is silver and plastered with Sandals decals,
as well as Etherson's contact information.

"It was a significant investment, but you get your
money back from Sandals if you make your sale," says Etherson. "When
you take on a debt like this, you better think outside the box," says
Etherson. "We make house calls—some of our clients are 25 to 30 miles
outside of town. When you pull into their driveway in a Sandals-ized vehicle,
it validates you right away." In a three-week period last year, Etherson
made eight house calls, and sold all eight.

Etherson keeps up with the business by reading travel
trades, and says he has a lot of interplay with agents and tour ops via phone,
e-mail and at events. He attends the Knoxville Premiere Bridal Show twice a
year: "We rent two booth spaces and drive the car right onto the show

One of Etherson's famous clients was Alex Haley, the author
of "Roots." "He used to come in and we'd book him travel on
tramp steamers to the Orient," he remembers. "He was a very quiet

Etherson himself is of Irish heritage, and one of his
favorite destinations is Ireland;
he's visited five times. But when he does have time to get away, he tells his
wife, "Let's do different."

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