July 22, 2010
On Site: Rail Europe Trip— Day Three, Lugano
The Swiss Pass may well be one of the cooler inventions to come along for tourism since the GDS. When a client has one of these passes, they can ride almost any public transportation in all of Switzerland for free, or at a greatly reduced rate. They can also get free or discounted access to museums and attractions all over the country. Please tell me—why we don’t have this in New York? Ride the subway for free and get into MoMA as a bonus! Seriously, it’s a great deal, and helps visitors explore more of the country and what it has to offer. Book it for your clients at www.raileurope.com, and tell them to hold onto it while they travel. They’ll need to show it often.
See more of Switzerland's cities in the video below.
With Swiss passes firmly in hand, our little group departed Milan at the crack of dawn to head across the border to Switzerland. Just a few miles from the border is Lugano, a town on a lake of the same name, surrounded by the Alps and some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in all of Switzerland. (The Italian town of Como is just a few miles away. We looked for George Clooney, but didn’t see him. Alas.)
The train ride—not even a high-speed one—was all of an hour, and crossing the border was effortless. We arrived at the station and went to our hotel to drop off our bags. The Hotel du Lac is technically in the town of Paradiso, and the gorgeous area lives up to its name. The lake is a brilliant turquoise blue, and a low mist made the mountains seem unapproachable and mysterious. (The hotel is right on the lake, and guests can swim in its waters or in the pool.) Our guide, Eliana Richina (firstname.lastname@example.org) got us first on a boat across the lake (lovely views of the villages along the shores) and then on a cogwheel train up Monte Generoso. Both trips were free with the Swiss Pass—the former took maybe 40 minutes, and the latter about an hour to reach the top of the mountain.
From there, we hiked a few yards to the peak for some spectacular views. Tell your clients to bring solid walking shoes that they don’t mind getting a bit dirty—the goats that graze on the side of the mountain are awfully cute, but they make the path very messy. Afterwards, we had a late lunch of local cuisine (ricotta-and-spinach ravioli, cheese-covered vegetables) at the peak’s restaurant, and relaxed for the ride back down the mountain.
Eliana took us on a walking tour of the town, where we could see the Cathedral and one of the major churches. The first dates back to the year 818 (it’s been restored and renovated a few times since), and the second—St. Mary of the Angels Church—has some original frescoes by Bernardino Luini, a student of Leonardo da Vinci’s. (The artwork in the church was covered for years, and is in a remarkable state of preservation. Some drawings on the walls look like sculpture and statuary—a perfect trompe-l'œil. Send your art-aficionado clients to check the church out.
See more of how to get around in Switzerland in the video below.
We then wandered through the old part of the city (built onto a hillside—tell your clients to bring good walking shoes!), passing little boutique stores and luxury retailers. (The former Palace of Justice, a building from 1425, now houses a Cartier store.) Suggest your shopaholic clients spend a few hours just wandering the town and going from store to store—if they get tired, there are plenty of gelaterias for them to recharge their batteries.
We were going to have an alfresco dinner at The Spaghetti Store, but the amazingly rude staff drove us out of there and over to Pizzeria Mary’s, a very nice restaurant with a patio that catches cooling breezes off the lake. Try the spinach gnocchi…or the tagliatelle Bolognese…or any of their different risottos. Really, it was all delicious, and light enough to be enjoyed outdoors on a warm night. (They also had a very tasty white Merlot, something I’d never tried before. It went beautifully with the pastas.)
By: Jena Tesse Fox
July 20, 2010
On Site: Rail Europe Trip— Day One in Milan
I can’t believe it’s been less than a day since we arrived in Milan. It feels like three, at least.
We landed about an hour behind schedule at 9 a.m. local time (thanks, Delta!) and headed into heart of the city, to the Hilton Milan, a perfectly nice hotel that’s walking distance to the train station—and since trains are at the heart of this trip, it’s quite apropos that we’re so nearby. For our first day, we got around the city via bus and on foot—more of the latter than the former—and explored as many highlights as could be crammed into 10 hours.
Of course, this is Italy, so we had to start off with some food. The concierge at the hotel recommended the Bar New York for lunch, and we all raised our eyebrows with concern. Fearing a deli or some kitschy pseudo-New-Yorker kind of place, we went around the corner and were delighted to find a genuine Italian luncheonette with some very tasty salads and pastas. The buffalo mozzarella was tangy and warm and very fresh, and my gnocchi Bolognese was delicious.
After lunch, we used our passes for a hop-on/hop-off bus tour of the city, heading down the Corso Venezia—this fashion-forward city’s most famous shopping street—and passing such iconic stores as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Vivienne Westwood and plenty more.
Exterior shot of the Duomo
We hopped off (as one does on these bus tours) in front of the Duomo, reportedly the fourth-largest church in the world. The piazza in front of the massive building is a hub of activity, and is great for people-watching. Warn your clients to be careful of the panhandlers and any possible pickpockets. (People were selling handfuls of corn for the pigeons, and literally put their hands less than an inch in front of my nose. Not the most effective of all marketing methods, I must say…)
Another thing to bear in mind: The cathedral does not allow bare shoulders or backs (at least for women—I didn’t notice if they let men wearing tank-tops in). If your clients plan to go inside in summer, remind them to bring a jacket or shawl.
Interior shot of the Duomo
Inside, the cathedral is simply awe-inspiring in its size, beauty and design. Dark and solemn, it still radiates an opulence of a bygone era, and the attention to detail is breathtaking. It was surprisingly crowded for the middle of a Monday afternoon, but all the visitors were quiet and respectful, and the experience was lovely, if far too short. Suggest your clients spend at least an hour—preferably more—exploring the cathedral.
See more of what you can tour in Italy in the video below.
Rather than return to the bus, we opted to wander around the narrow streets by the Duomo and find the Teatro alla Scala—more popularly known as La Scala. On the way, we ducked into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, looking to find something cold to drink. At the four corners where the two parts of the arcade meet, there is a silver shop, a Prada, a Louis Vuitton…and a McDonalds. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. (We avoided Mickey D’s and went to Savini for some gelato—the perfect thing for a hot day.)
Outside the Galleria, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele has lots of great shopping for the junior set. (Nothing as fancy as Prada or Louis Vuitton, but we found some great deals in a Zara.)
Oh, yes, and after wandering for quite a while, we did find La Scala. And yes, it’s beautiful.
For dinner, our concierge (whose word we will never doubt again) sent us to Ristorante da Berti, which has a gorgeous outdoor garden for alfresco dining. The patio is completely enclosed by topiary (well, almost completely—we could see the lawn where the outdoor grill was cooking the restaurant’s meats), making it hard to remember that one is dining in the middle of a bustling city. The food was magnificent—all of the pasta is made in-house, and everything was rich and delicious, from the prosciutto and melon to the risotto alla Milanese to the Ossobuco…The menus are not available in English, but the very friendly staff can communicate perfectly well with non-Italian speakers (the patio was a modern-day Babel), and can help diners choose the perfect meal.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to fall into a deep food coma.
By: Jena Tesse Fox
May 14, 2010
Kirk Cassels' Weekly Wrap of User Comments: May 10-14
Before we get started this week, I'd like to suggest agents (particularly those with clients who are eager to visit Great Britain) take time this weekend, or sometime soon, to go see the new Robin Hood film by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and William Hurt. I had the privilege of seeing an advance screening this past Wednesday and, in my layman's opinion, not only is the film a subtle and original take on the legendary figure (that is neither hoaky nor driven by a Robin Hood that speaks with an American accent- sorry, Costner), it has some beautiful scenery that could further entice clients to make the journey across the pond. The backdrop of the film can remind clients about the bucolic regions of the country where they can go to truly escape and, perhaps, get in touch with the original sources of thei heritage. Visit www.visitbritain.com/en/campaigns/robinhood for more and you'll see what I mean.
That being said, let's take a look at what readers have been saying at TravelAgentCentral this week. I'm glad to report that most of the comments this week have been focused on helping agents through advice or warning.
More on Vacation Rentals
We've been discussing the potential impact that vacation rentals can have on an agent's business for almost a month now, and the conversation is not going away just yet. In fact, two readers shared some information on the topic just this week.
First up this week was michael chisholm, of Wimco Villas. He wrote:
As a sales agent working for a villa reservation company, we help Travel Agents all the time as we apprciate the need to further the villa vacation market. The company I work for, www.wimco.com represents villas in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, Europe and Nantucket and ALL our destinations have on island support for vactioners. In the ever expanding vacation rental marketplace, specialising in specfic destinations is important as this provides better accuracy overall.
Perhaps you are weary of potentially subjective information coming from a supplier, which is understandable. Therefore, I suggest you listen to Amanda, who posted:
Staying in hotels on vacation is a thing of the past! So many more people love the option of getting a vacation rental and having more privacy and more space. Not to mention how affordable they can be. I believe that vacation rentals are a great market for travel agents. I myself book vacation rentals and get nothing but great reviews.
Lisa is another non-supplier who is a strong supporter of this niche market, stating:
When in Hawaii, staying in a vacation rental whether it is in a villa or a home, it is the only way to go. I had the opportunity to work with the friendly staff at Tropical Villa Vacations, who showed a genuine concern for all of my travel needs. The location that we chose was perfect!
The fact that so many comments have been coming in on this topic over the course of a month (which is like years in Internet timing) is more than encouraging, to say the least. I hope agents take the opportunity to keep sharing more on the topic both here and at a discussion thread on AgentNation.
Speaking of AgentNation
Last week, we reported on Expedia's new Travel Agent Affiliate program and, although there have been no comments posted (yet) directly on the story, we've received feedback at our discussion thread on the matter at AgentNation. If you haven't signed up and/or logged in yet, here's what some agents had to share on the matter.
Angie was the first to respond, writing:
I am excited about this because now clients can't say "we booked it on Expedia". They will know we can get them the best price available no questions asked. I do have one question. I am trying to sign up online for the free sign up before June promo. It wants my bank info. Is that so they can bill us the 50dollars?
Meanwhile, user macaw_mom does not appear as enthused as Angie, posting:
I am not that excited. I see the online agencies like this worried they are losing to the True Travel Agent. Commission levels for TAAP are: 10% for Expedia Special Rate hotels $6 per booking for Agency Hotels 5% on vacation packages (flight+hotel, flight+car rental, flight+hotel+car rental). Note Minimum 3 night/3day Land Content 3% on vacation packages (flight+hotel, flight+car rental, flight+hotel+car rental). Note Less than 3 night/3day Land Content 10% for activities I just booked a 7 day vacation - Hotel/Air - my commission is $347.00 If I did it through Expedia - at 5% - my commission would have been $160.00 I work hard for my money - to build my business not theirs If people want to book from Orbitz or Expedia, I say okay... In 2010 I have seen an increase in customers, who say they are tired of spending so much time on the internet finding the best price. I will remain "true" to my agency & my customers, without affiliating with these online booking companies.
What's your take? Is the Expedia program an opportunity for agents as online travel agencies (OTAs) seek new relationships or is it, perhaps, a waste of time too late in the game? Agents chimed in on the subject at our Facebook page as well. Here is what some of them had to say.
Dedra Shahan wrote:
While it's wonderful to be recognized as valuable, I can't help but think these giant companies will market direct to our clients thus becoming Their clients. My prefered tour operators will price match. I work with companies that have always valued my expertise.
Laure Poffenberger shared:
They are chasing their tails now & realize what a great asset using a travel agent is. So much of travel just cannot be planned over the Internet & when there is a problem our clients want help from someone the know & trust. I in turn want to use a tour operator that I know & trust. I think OTA's are in trouble & are grasping at straws.
What are your thoughts? Hit us up by posting a comment below or at the original posting. You can also join the conversation at our Facebook page, send a tweet to us at our Twitter page (@travelagentmag) and join the discussion in real time at AgentNation.
Readers Request Answers
Sometimes, we write a report about a new business or supplier and some readers, apparently, believe that means we are that same business. That's flattering, in some regard, as they consider us the ultimate source of information on the matter. But as an organization that does its best to cover all aspects of the travel trade, it can be hard to answer specific questions.
For instance, we've received a lot of attention to our initial report on the introduction of Pet Airways to the industry. Most recently, one reader inquired about potential flights to Europe on the carrier.
Gisela Gonzalez Flores-Clarke wrote:
Your service looks fantastic!! When are you opening flights to Europe? I need to travel to England twice a year and need to bring my 5 kilo Yorkie. Sending him in the hold is definately not a option for me!!! I do hope you start service to Europe asap!!!!!!!!
I wish I had an answer for you, Gisela. With the company now just more than a year old, I kind of doubt they will be doing flights outside of the United States just yet. However, perhaps if you take a gander at the Help section Pet Airways web site you can find the answers you need, be it a timetable on potential flights or a straight up answer if it is going to happen, ever.
James Collier recently commented on a story in a similar manner. After learning about Tourism Ireland's new Golden Trekker for seniors riding Irish Rail, he commented:
This development is very welcome, my sister was born in UK of Irish parentd and they returned to Ireland when she was 2, she went to nurse in UKwhen she was 18 and has lived there since. She comes to stay with us each year and this will be very useful. I write for the Senior Times and I would appreciate an e-mail of this information and any other useful information for seniors travelling, including reserving seats, etc.
116 Sea Park, Malahide
James, I'd be delighted to help you by sharing any information I can find. However, you did not provide an e-mail for me to contact you. Can you post it in a comment or contact me at email@example.com and I'll see what I can do? Until then, if any agents and readers out there can share additional information on this program, that would be a great help. It runs through the end of the year. Here's the Tourism Ireland web site, which may provide answers: www.tourismireland.com.
America('s Vacation Center) is Under Attack!
Two months ago, there was a lot of attention on the temporary demise of Travelport and it transitioned to discussions on how an agent's leads may be affected. But as much as the conversation was based around Travelport, one reader brough America's Vacation Center (AVC) into the fray.
Mary brought it up, writing:
Beware of AVC They will take 70% of your commission and all referrals generated from that one lead will be their's, again taking 70% commision. I was promised the referrals as my own, which I thought would be worth giving up that initial commission,but boy was I wrong. I was hounded on every extra person that booked their trip and asked if they came from their live lead. They took that customer as their own because they were referred.. Also, all of my customer base that I put into their system at the time so I could market to them, are still being marketed to by AVC after I quit them as my host agency. That is so wrong. Just my 2cents worth.
Note that this is Mary's opinion and not that of the staff her at Travel Agent. Regardless, that's disappointing to read. Anyone out there able to support or rebuff Mary's take on AVC? I'd like to learn more (and I doubt I'm alone).
Advice for an Editor
Normally, an exchange between readers and writers/editors on the site involves our staff responding with some information to help our audience. But this week, we was a bit of the reverse happen as our own Jena Tesse Fox journeyed to Durban, South Africa for the 2010 Indaba trade show (the largest in Africa). Read her most recent report here.
But before Jen hit the trade show floor to share reports, she took a seemingly endless journey across the Atlantic Ocean, most of it pleasant thanks to South African Airlines. On the topic of drinking too much or not enough coffee before a flight, reader Alfredo Tor-Paz made a suggestion to Jena, stating:
In spite of the strong coffee, never drink so much caffeine after 6pm, it is a very good airline, SAA, my comment, would be over the transfer to domestic, there is no place to complain much....have you tried to fly via the USA??? Horror, thanks for reminding that, I still prefer transferring thru JNB...my grain of sand or salt.
I am currently in the midst of what has been numerous attempts to cut back on coffeed, and it is indeed hard. Still, Afredo's comments are spot on regarding drinking it at night. Hopefully Jena takes his advice before flying back next week.
Speaking of next week... we'll catch up again on what's causing buzz around the industry and at TravelAgentCentral. Keep the comments coming (below or elsewhere) and don't forget to extend to conversation to other outlets such as our Facebook page, our Twitter page (@travelagentmag) and in real time at AgentNation
By: Kirk Cassels