Bermans Blaze Their Own Trail

Susan and Marc Berman aren't afraid to blaze their own way when it comes to business. The married couple opened their own travel agency, Atlantic City, NJ-based Berman Travel, in the months after 9/11, when the travel world was reeling and travel agencies were dropping like flies. Susan and Marc Berman

"Pre-9/11, I was in the entertainment business as a deejay, and my travel agent asked me to become an outside sales agent and bring him my wedding business as potential honeymoon travel," explains fast-talking Marc Berman, showing an enthusiasm that is catching. "When 9/11 hit, I saw a lot of travel agencies going out of business," he observes. "At the same time, I saw resort companies opening new hotels, and cruise lines creating new itineraries and sailing from new ports. These companies go after the foreign market, but they also make a big play for the U.S. traveler."

Berman noticed that the agencies that were folding were the order takers. "They depended on local business, when in fact, local business is now nationwide," he says.

Berman broached the idea of opening a travel agency to his wife, Susan. He'd concentrate on marketing the agency, while Susan's organizational skills would keep the ship on a straight course. "The travel business was new for both of us," says Susan. "I have a background as a therapist in the mental health field; I also worked with a hospice—obviously very different fields from travel."

"We created our own category," says Marc. "There are brick-and-mortar agencies, and home-based agencies—well, we're a condo-based agency." The ground floor of the building housing Berman Travel contains the company's call center and offices, while three floors above, the Bermans have a condo that they live in.

Getting Started

The Bermans started out by putting a premium on research. They paid for their own fams to Jamaica and visited 40 resorts, and they took a Seabourn cruise and toured resorts at every Caribbean island on the itinerary. Prior to reaching port, they contacted tourist boards from each island to arrange resort visits. "We see every island we sell," says Susan. "Customers are reassured when they realize the agent has actually visited the destination or stayed at the resort they're selling."

"When we entered the business, gone were the days of airline commissions and huge fams," says Marc. "We went on the web, went to many events—this business is all about partnerships." One of their most important partnerships is the one they have with Travel Impressions. The Bermans' agency has been a Travel Impressions "Best of the Best" winner the last four years running; in 2005 and 2006 they also received the Global Award from Travel Impressions for achieving top 35 national sales status.

"Our contact at Travel Impressions, Sue Sheehan, senior business development manager, was part mentor, part cheerleader," says Marc. "Four years ago, she was the one who told us there were agencies starting to market on Google and Yahoo." The Bermans researched how agencies were using the web, and in turn created a web site with lots of bells and whistles.

"Part of my job is to wake up every day and figure out the Google algorithm," says Marc. "We're using today's technology to get customers."

The Bermans have a favorite catch phrase: "We give mom-and-pop service, but they find us on the Internet." When a customer finds Berman Travel on the web, that customer is then assigned to an outside sales agent who will be with that customer all the way through the transaction. Repeat business is important to the agency; the clients Susan personally handles come back as repeaters at an astounding rate of 92 percent. "For us, it's not so important what we can get from a tour operator or hotel, it's how do we manage to get that customer to come back," says Susan.

Susan, who was raised on Florida's west coast, counts Mexico's Riviera Maya as her number-one destination due to its history, shopping, beaches, attractions and the friendliness of the Mayan people. Susan's next dream trip is to Greece, while Marc, even though he's not a cruise enthusiast, would like to take another Seabourn cruise, having enjoyed the previous one so much.

Susan and Marc were two of the first travel agents to visit Karisma's Azul Blue Hotel + Spa in the Riviera Maya when it opened last December. "We sell a lot of Seabourn and Silversea, and Azul Blue would be the perfect match for that level of client," says Berman. "It's definitely a luxury product for clients used to fine dining and good service. There are activities, but more along the lines of yoga and tequila tasting classes. The macarena crowd is not going to enjoy it."

Berman notes that although Azul Blue is a family resort, it lacks a kid's club. "The type of client who would come to Azul Blue with their kids would probably bring their nanny along with them," she says. The Bermans have thoroughly researched the all-inclusive market in Mexico and the Caribbean, and observe that Azul Blue has taken the all-inclusive concept to a new level.

The Bermans' agency caters to three kinds of customers: those who are thinking of going on vacation, those who are on vacation, and those who are thinking of going back—"In essence, everybody," says Marc.

"Our agents are all outside agents—they're very motivated," says Susan. "They have to be—if they don't close the deal they don't make any money." Berman Travel's web site features promotions and packages from such companies as Apple Vacations, Club Med, Funjet Vacations, GoGo Worldwide Vacations, Iberostar Resorts, Pleasant Holidays and USAirways Vacations. In 2006 Berman Travel saw a 200 percent increase in sales.

We asked the Bermans if they had any advice for someone considering opening a travel agency: "Have patience. Enjoy what you do. And be willing to spend money to market and advertise your agency and to invest in technology."