From Tour Operator to Travel Agent

Veteran industry professional Rick Etherson sums up his view of the travel business in one pithy comment: "This whole business is nothing but change—change is constant." Etherson, co-owner with his wife Linda, of Etherson Travel in Knoxville, TN, has been involved with travel for more than five decades.

"I'm not going to tell you how old I am," says Etherson. "But I was drawn to travel back in 1949." At that time Etherson was living in Washington, DC and was fascinated with Wyoming and YellowstoneNational Park.

"I wrote to a concessionaire and asked for a job, and he told me to come on out," he says. "My second year at Yellowstone, I started working as a step-on guide." In years to come, he shifted into working for the government and traveling throughout the U.S., becoming a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the National Tour Association.

"In 1968 my good friend Arthur Tauck encouraged me to become a tour broker," says Etherson. "There was a dormant tour license in Knoxville, TN, and I started Roger Q Tours." For 20 years, Etherson designed, advertised and operated escorted tours throughout Canada and the U.S. In 1972, the company organized the largest single commercial movement in Greyhound history when it ran 100 buses to the Billy Graham Campus Crusade in Dallas, TX.

"In 1985 we opened our agency, Etherson Travel, in order to serve Roger Q Tours," says Etherson. "Then I saw the handwriting on the wall when they deregulated the tour industry, making the distinction of being a licensed tour broker non-existent." In 1988, Etherson closed Roger Q Tours.

In the beginning, Etherson's agency was split equally between leisure and corporate business. "But as airlines began cutting commissions, it was a no-brainer to make the change towards more leisure, which is now 100 percent of our business," he says. "We began to specialize in selling all-inclusive vacation packages, especially Air Jamaica Vacations and Sandals Resorts." The company rounds things out with high-end cruises and vacations to such destinations as Alaska, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Orlando. Etherson laughs: "You can't clean off the rack any faster than that, baby." He adds, "I don't mind telling you, we do $1.7 million a year."

Etherson works out of a brick-and-mortar office with a two-person staff: himself and his wife. He's skeptical about working from a home office: "You have to make it easy for them to come in and see you."

Etherson is a Platinum Sandals agent and one of the company's top producers. When Sandals announced its Sandals-ized vehicles in the fall of 2005, Etherson jumped in, and since receiving his car in December 2005, business increased 22 percent. He describes the vehicle as a rolling billboard: "It's helped establish us as the area's Sandals expert," he says. The custom Honda Element is silver and plastered with Sandals decals, as well as Etherson's contact information.

"It was a significant investment, but you get your money back from Sandals if you make your sale," says Etherson. "When you take on a debt like this, you better think outside the box," says Etherson. "We make house calls—some of our clients are 25 to 30 miles outside of town. When you pull into their driveway in a Sandals-ized vehicle, it validates you right away." In a three-week period last year, Etherson made eight house calls, and sold all eight.

Etherson keeps up with the business by reading travel trades, and says he has a lot of interplay with agents and tour ops via phone, e-mail and at events. He attends the Knoxville Premiere Bridal Show twice a year: "We rent two booth spaces and drive the car right onto the show floor."

One of Etherson's famous clients was Alex Haley, the author of "Roots." "He used to come in and we'd book him travel on tramp steamers to the Orient," he remembers. "He was a very quiet man."

Etherson himself is of Irish heritage, and one of his favorite destinations is Ireland; he's visited five times. But when he does have time to get away, he tells his wife, "Let's do different."

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