Important Lessons

What's the most important thing that you learned on the job in 2006? Travel Agent asked agents for their top tips and how they plan to apply them. 

Michelle Hoey

Pennsylvania Tours

For Michelle Hoey, president of Pennsyl-vania Tours (just outside Philadelphia), 2006's top lesson was something she is reminded of year after year. "In this industry, we learn this over and over: The most important aspect of any service business is customer service," she says. 

For 2007, Hoey has charged her staff with thinking of ways to enhance customer service, advising them to think about companies they personally like to work with and go back to again and again. "I want our clients to not only feel good about their trip, but feel good about coming back to us," Hoey says. "It's not about having the best price, it's who gives the best customer service."

Hoey says the best idea her staff came up with was to give employees more authority in making decisions. "One of the things we're trying to do this year is empower our agents to be able to make their own decisions, within certain limits," she says. "For example, if a client is annoyed with a $50 problem, do you want to put them on hold and shuffle them around, or do you want your agent to be able to simply say, 'We'll take care of it?'"

Dan Arriaga

Newhall Valencia Travel

Sometimes the proverbial light bulb flicks on while working with a client, as it did last year for Dan Arriaga, owner of Newhall Valencia Travel in Newhall, CA. Agents always verify what their clients heading to another country will need in terms of passports, but they also need to ask what's required if their clients are holding a passport issued by a country other than the U.S.

In the example Arriaga shares, inbound visitors from the U.S. with a passport needed just the passport; however, this client was traveling on a passport from a third country and thus needed a visa. "That's something you just can't overlook," he says, especially with the rising volume of documents needed. He also notes that U.S.-based travel agents may field requests from clients who are temporarily in the U.S. and looking to visit another country; alertness to exactly which documents are needed is important.

Gary Pollard

Ambassador Tours

Gary Pollard, owner of Ambassador Tours, says, "As 2006 evolved, we experienced a significant recurrence of interest in land tours (FITs), with India and Africa heading the list of destinations. Contrary to years ago (when travelers wanted pre-programmed tours) the trend today is toward independent travel arrangements that allow more flexibility and the opportunity to visit unique places."

Why? "Like with so many things today, it's the Internet! The incredible amount of information available has given rise to more curious and adventurous travelers who want to explore more places and, at the same time, maximize the value of their vacation dollar."

"Ours is an extremely competitive industry," he says. "Providing the best possible service is a given; when coupled with individual knowledge of current trends, you've got a winning formula."

Amanda Kilmak

Largay Travel, Inc.

 Amanda Klimak

"I think the biggest thing I learned last year, which I am applying this year, is that we need to work smarter," says Amanda Kilmak, the vice president of Largay Travel Inc. in Waterbury, CT. We need to monitor and change our business plan on a regular basis. We also need to review the value of each client and determine if we could be making them more profitable—by using preferred vendors or adding additional services to their bookings. Further, it's important that we figure out if we have clients that are costing us money due to the amount of time we spend on them or the type of business that they book. We can't be afraid to let them go if they are not profitable.

Lastly, I discovered that proactive marketing with our current client list is the most cost-effective marketing we can do. Keeping abreast on the hot destinations and travel specials and then calling our clients in advance and suggesting trips is much less expensive than trying to find new clients for our agency."

Drew Tate

Drew's Cruise Corner

 Drew Tate

"Learn more about your competition is the most important lesson I learned in 2006," says Drew Tate, owner of Drew's Cruise Corner in Orlando and Joystar's most improved travel agent in 2006. "See what companies offer fees; see what companies charge for shipping and handling. A lot of this information is right on their web sites—use it to show clients why you think you are better than the competition.

"Also, always follow up. A lot of the big-time agencies don't do this. I started calling my clients more in 2006, and you'd be surprised by how many of them said, 'You are the first agent to call and see how my trip went.'"