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Staying in Touch on the RoadApril 1, 2007 By: Joe Pike Home-Based Travel Agent
How agents handle client relationships while away from home
This May, Tony Salamone, owner of Tony Salamone Travel Company in Chicago, will be traveling to Australia for close to 20 days, the longest he'll ever be away from his home office. At the same time, most of his clients will be traveling overseas in Europe and Hawaii. Since accessibility is often perceived to be a leading reason home-based agents have become a stronger force in the industry in the past five years, it's safe to say that Salamone has a bit of a challenge ahead of him.
That is, unless he has done what most home-based agents do: notify clients about two weeks to a month in advance of their departure, include "gone traveling" messages on their voice mail or e-mail and equip themselves with the technology needed to bring their home office along with their luggage.
"The typical home-agent is very service-focused, and client loyalty is often a direct result of their ability to reach this agent anytime and anyplace," says Joanie Ogg, president of the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents, who recently conducted a seminar on the subject. "It is a tremendous edge that they have."
Sure, most agents, like the majority of traveling businesspeople in general, bring along the latest BlackBerry model and a cell phone, but what other technology is out there to make an agent's life easier?
"Home-based travel agents are really very mobile and arm themselves with all the most current technology available and needed for them to stay in touch with clients at all times," Ogg says. "They all have cell phones and, better yet, hand-held devices that they can also use for e-mail. Laptops that are fast and lightweight are the norm for these agents, laptops armed with DVD, Internet access and long-life batteries, as well as back-up batteries."
Specifically, Ogg and other industry representatives recommend Hewlitt-Packard products. The company, in fact, has taken measures to promote many of its latest office-on-the-road products to home-based agents: Mark Dixon, national sales program manager, and other HP representatives attended the Home-Based Travel Agent Expo and Conference in Las Vegas this past December.
One product Dixon highly recommends for home-based agents is the HP three-in-one NAS Docking Station. It is designed to be a mobile office solution for HP Business Notebook PC users, especially professionals like home-based agents who demand desktop-like functions while traveling away from the office. It has port replication, cable management and security.
The feature that perhaps is most intriguing to agents, however, is the Data backup and recovery attribute. The HP three-in-one NAS Docking Station features an integrated 160GB 7200rpm SATA hard drive that is accessible as a network drive via a Broadcom BCM4781 NASoC chip for secure and reliable data backup and recovery. HP's backup and recovery manager software (included) allows for automatic or manual system backup to prevent data loss and reduce potential downtime.
Or, in other words, whatever you are working on while traveling is backed up in another computer. For example, if you were to lose your computer while on the road, all of the information will be on whatever computer you chose to back up your files on.
Choosing a Laptop
"Whenever leaving for a certain amount of time, any critical turning points like final payment, documents or during-travel items need to be addressed," Salamone says. "A laptop is the most critical piece of equipment an agent needs to have while on the road, or someone at that laptop back at the office managing it for you."
Now, if you want to look for an edge on the competition, some laptops are better than others. As far as HP products go, Dixon recommends the HP Compaq nc2400. HP describes it as a computer that is "built for wherever work takes you. Among its features are mobility with a starting weight of 2.8 lbs (1.29kg) and only 0.97" (24.8mm) thin. It can be configured with an optical drive for enhanced productivity or without for extreme mobility. It has a 12.1-inch widescreen display with a large viewable area.
"It's becoming mandatory for companies like mine to be marketing to home-based agents," Dixon told Home-Based Travel Agent during a recent sit-down interview. "It's apparent from shows like [the Home-Based Travel Agent Expo and Conference] that these people aren't going anywhere and that they tend to travel a bit. You really have to be able to bring everything you need from your office on the road, especially in this industry. So, we will continue to come out with products that make that job easier."
Other Useful Solutions
Peter Carideo, owner/president of CRC Travel in Chicago, uses a program called GoToMyPC.com, which enables him to access everything on his office desktop remotely.
Sue Pisaturo, owner of NJ-based Small World Vacations, which sells only Disney and uses 40 independent contractors throughout the U.S., says most agents, like most traveling businesspeople, carry cell phones, a BlackBerry and wireless computers. But to make sure the client's history always travels with an agent, Pisaturo is making sure all of her agents get familiar with TRAMS Back Office.
TRAMS, Inc., is a back-office computer system used mostly by travel agents. Basically, TRAMS serves as an office on your computer that you can access wherever you are. Among its functions are commission tracking, ticket logs, client history, income statements and balance sheets. It interfaces with all of the CRS systems, including Sabre, Galileo, Amadeus and Worldspan. Single location and single office is $1,080 per year, or $95 paid monthly. Visit www.trams.com for more information.
Pisaturo's host agency also pairs agents together. Each agent has a partner in the host agency who fills in when the other agent is unavailable. Pisaturo says, however, that the partner system is primarily designed for emergency situations and agents, for the most part, are expected to remain in contact with their clients no matter where they are.
"Some host agencies do offer the service of assisting agents while they are traveling or away but I would not say this is the norm," Ogg says. "It is a great service that a host might provide, however."
"In the end, we want the agent to have all the tools necessary to be able to contact his or her client when on the road," Pisaturo says. "We will have people here to step in for you if needed, but the agent working with the client is the one who knows the client the best, who the client has learned to trust, so we really want that same agent to be working with the client. Also, the agent on the road knows the history of the client. We'd rather the agent take that history with them on the road than have someone different look it up at home."