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Ski.com's Commissionable PackagesJanuary 1, 2007 By: Dan Butcher Travel Agent
A conversation with Mark Uhlfelder, senior vice president of Ski.com
As senior vice president for Ski.com Mark Uhlfelder leads the company's marketing efforts. He joined Aspen Ski Tours' three existing partners in 1995, and in 2000, he engineered the purchase of the Ski.com URL and the subsequent company name change. Between August 2003 and September 2004, Uhlfelder, together with Ski.com President and CEO Harry Peisach, spearheaded the acquisitions of Aspen Snowmass Central Reservations, Lynx Vacations, Sportours, Adventures on Skis, AnyMountain Tours and Go West Tours. As a result, Ski.com is now the largest independent seller of ski package vacations in North America and America's largest multi-sport travel company.
Ski.com's packages—and many add-ons—are fully commissionable to agents, who will generally get 10 percent of everything, including air, lodging, lift tickets, transfers, car and ski rentals and ski lessons. "Because we're not affiliated with an airline or resort or management company," Uhlfelder says, "we are able to give agents a totally objective perspective, help them decide what is best for the client. We aren't just a marketing arm of a resort, and we aren't working for a management company; we're working for the client, that way they'll come back."
He notes that the company's direct relationships with suppliers enable special arrangements with airlines and hotels, such as block rooms in hard-to-book properties. "If there are cancellations, [these suppliers] contact us first," he says. "There are certain properties where we are the only tour operator."
Advocating Using Travel Agents
Uhlfelder, who has a law degree, admits that he's in a tough industry, and he feels that tour operators and travel agents need to work together to compete with web sites such as Travelocity and Expedia. "People think these companies are offering the best deals, but your best bet is to go to your local travel agent," he says.
"The Internet has really hurt the travel agent community, and if travel agents don't do well, then we don't do well," Uhlfelder continues. "Agents are fighting this mistaken perception that they're more expensive than these sites. It's taken a few years to rebound, but business has been improving steadily.
"One, travel agents provide a valuable service; two, Travelocity and Expedia don't provide any advice; and three, they aren't any cheaper than a travel agent. People are circling back to using agents more and more," he concludes.
Uhlfelder says that 2006 was a good year—both for Ski.com and for travel agents booking ski and snowboard FITs. "One major trend we've seen is a huge jump in bookings by travel agents this year," he says. "It is fully responsible for our entire increase in business this year. Early bookings by travel agents were really, really eye-opening." In fact, sales through travel agents are up 17 percent from last year and 26 percent from two years ago. Overall, agents currently bring in 51 percent of Ski.com's sales.
Since day one, Barry Lefkowitz, who started the company and brought Uhlfelder into the fold, always told his team, "If you want to do a lot of business in this industry, you have to work very closely with travel agents. That continues to be our philosophy," Uhlfelder says.
"We've always commissioned travel agents, worked with them and marketed toward them. We try to match their clients with the best vacations and accommodations for them, try to find that perfect match. Ski.com makes it very easy for travel agents to look good for their clients. The travel agent looks like a hero, and they are heroes. They've brought us so much business, and they help to make sure dates and deadlines are met."
Your Go-to Ski Experts
Ski.com's Mountain Travel Specialists have an insider perspective, having been to every lodging property and resort that the company recommends. These are the people travel agents speak with to book personalized vacations. They help agents qualify their clients about budget, destination options, their skiing/snowboarding skill level, what kind of lodging they're seeking and other activities. "Mountain Travel Specialists know our recommended properties inside and out, and we have an ongoing knowledge of what's available at the time," says Uhlfelder. Despite the fact that Aspen is Ski.com's home base and they book internationally, their most popular destinations have been Vail and Beaver Creek.
The company also has concierges to help agents fill in the gaps after they have already booked the trip and provide support to clients during their vacation. "If they don't want to deal with restaurants, activities, complimentary services, agents can refer clients to our concierges," says Uhlfelder. He recommends booking the holidays as far in advance as possible. "If you know your dates in August, call then."
To meet the needs of the luxury travel market, Ski.com recently debuted its dedicated Luxury.Ski.com resource for planning and booking luxury mountain vacations. Luxury travel has grown rapidly over the past decade and is now the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry and, as the number of luxury travelers is expanding, so too are their needs. Pampering, privacy, value and customization are what remain important among affluent travelers. They want creative itineraries, unconventional excursions and superior service—and they want it all for a "deal," even if it's at the high end.
Ski.com's luxury travel specialists are familiar with top resorts in mountain towns, and have access to a variety of activities, tickets and services such as private or first-class air transportation, private limousine service, personal chefs, heli-ski trips, in-room spa treatments and upscale dining reservations. In addition, Luxury.Ski.com's portfolio includes private homes, condominiums and five-star accommodations at 34 resorts worldwide.
Uhlfelder grew up skiing in Aspen, where he's witnessed the ski industry's development since his family moved there in 1963 when he was six years old. He's since skied and lived all over the world, from Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., to European destinations like France, Switzerland and Spain. A multi-sport enthusiast, he also enjoys running, cycling, swimming and hiking.