A Host of Options

The life of a home-based agent can be a lonely one. While you take in more of the reward, you also encounter all the risk when it comes to so much of what you buy. Host agencies can be a helpful alternative, offering technological advances in return for a one-time fee or a piece of the commission. But which host agency—if any—is the right option for you? In addition to technological advances, many host agencies offer online training and help lines

Follow the Crowd

Jackie Friedman, general manager of Southlake, TX-based Nexion, believes one of the most important components of host agencies where technology is concerned is how they can mix technology and community, allowing an agent to face the Facebook age on their own terms. "Social networking has become a key component of the future of our business," she says. "Our site is an agent networking site and we will be expanding it to suppliers. There's intelligence behind the scenes that's more than just a message board. You can post a question to the community and it will be sent out to the specific agents who fit the profile and have answered similar questions in the past, and also to the top ten agents who have the highest likelihood of answering that question."

Nexion, which has 600 agents, has an average of between three to four answers per question. "Our booking tools contain features like the Sabre Leisure Suite and Sabre Vacations, the private-label version of VAX," Friedman says. "They get any of the four GDS tools they use because just under half of our agents use GDSs. There's also the option of our own Nexion Cruise that loads all of our group block space and they can look there first to see if we have better selling opportunities." Quick Tips

But more important than sales is the vast amount of training available, an underrated aspect of the host agency value. "We have a full slate of online training with webinars," Friedman says. "We record all of our twice-a-week webinars by suppliers. Nexion fundamental webinars are available, too, so agents new to the program can get an orientation to all resources and products we have...There's a one-time fee of $199 and then for the Nexion 100 program, they pay a flat monthly fee of $179 and retain their commission. Or they can join Nexion 90 and avoid the monthly fee but we split 90/10 on commission. Either one of them can be used for ticket and fulfillment programs."

Andi McClure-Mysza, president of Montrose, CA-based Montrose Travel, says that the company's booking technology is among its leading host advantages. "Booking forums are set up to go against cumbersome reporting by simpler point and click," she says. "For anything booked on our website, the agent doesn't even need to fill out forms; it's done through our accounting systems. They also get ClientConnect, a client prospect database for which agents don't pay an extra fee. It has the ability to send out HTML blasts, and agents can customize the e-mail with a monthly message on autopilot that will automatically go out to their list." Agents in the corporate arena receive ClickBook, an online self- booking tool for business accounts, McClure-Mysza adds. "Travel GPA is also a part of the package—it's a notification service for when flights change, going right to your BlackBerry for the traveler." McClure-Mysza says the annual fee depends on the experience level, but will range from $299 to $499.

Lower or No-Fee Opportunities

An owner at Monroe Falls, OH-based World Travel Management, Donna Zabel partly chalks up her company's 100 percent retention of its 35 agents from the previous year to a lower host price, which limits the service but concentrates on "priority needs."

"You get one general webinar from us a month and there's a couple of supplier events," she says, "but we don't believe in overdoing it because it can be overwhelming, and you want to be sure it's serving the customer and not just the supplier." Zabel says her company has a one-time initial setup fee of $100 registering the agent with all vendors and a monthly rate that can range from no fee to $50, depending on volume.

Bob Kern, president of PNR Travel in Los Angeles, also works within a lower budget. "Apollo and Sabre are available as part of the deal and agents can have them both if they want," he says. "The different software includes BookingBuilder and Relay and all the scriptwriters for any of the scripts the agents have. If they build their own website, they can hyperlink into our site—that opens them up to a lot of our American Express specials we run. Training options are boosted through our consortia and ASTA affiliation, along with supplier webinars." The yearly fee is $127, which includes all software and ENL insurance. There's also a charge of $15 a month for the GDS, with the commission split negotiable.

New York-based Protravel International offers hosting for free, but not all who apply will be accepted, says Jim Sheehy, managing director of the Southwest division. "We have to first evaluate to make sure the agent has the right experience because of all we're prepared to offer them," he says. "If we accept them and feel they'll be able to take advantage of it, we'll set them up with Sabre booking tools. As far as ticketing, not everyone is a ticketing agent nor should they be. If they have that previous experience, they're set up with a ticketing system. But if they don't, we're prepared to do it for them."

Sheehy says Protravel has a wide offering of webinars and an accounting system through e-mail that supplies real-time data on commissions and sales. Protravel also makes available technical IT support and has given select agents opportunities to be a part of its deals on Microsoft software and even may provide them with laptops. With more than 500 agents, the only possible fees happen if the agent elects to be a part of the phone Internet service, subscribe to available industry reports or take part in Protravel's insurance program.

Custom-Built Sites

Jeff Abels, owner of Vacation Connection and SEACruises in Cerritos, CA, actually offers to build a complete agent website for free. He makes up for it with a commission take of anywhere between 30 to 80 percent, depending on the work that needs to be put in.

"We only do cruise special events, hooking up with agent specialists to work with their 50-60 group cruises offered," he says. "We build the website specifically for that agent to be featured—eight to 10 pages of customized information, including pictures to highlight the excursion. A huge advantage is we can put the site up sometimes within hours of the agent agreeing to work with us because we've streamlined so much of the process. The customer clicks on the online signup page and we generate automatic e-mails from the independent contractor to move the process along...End-of-week electronic reports show them how their customer goals are tracking. There's an Access database for this, and if the agent wants to manage it themselves, we customize it for them."

Abels says beyond that, his company offers an independent contractor sales and marketing forum three times a year shown as a webinar for those who can't attend. "We have e-mail newsletters and e-mail fliers put on the page for a potential buyer to download. With being so commission-based, we'll do anything to help the agent succeed."

—Eric Butterman

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