Your Technology/Virtual Agents Need Virtual Tools

How many so-called home-based travel agents have you met without ever realizing they were "home-based?"

"Remember, 'home-based' is just an expression—what it really means for us is that our office is virtual," says Steve Hirshan, a vacation specialist with host agency America's Vacation Center-American Express. "To me it is most important to have a business line that you can forward to your cell phone, so it appears you are always in your office, and a laptop computer with wireless internet access, so you can act like you are always in your office," he adds. "I plan in the near future to upgrade to a PDA so I can combine the two issues above into one device." Tech Travel Tools

The Tech Advantage

Being a travel-agent-cum-road-warrior offers some incredible advantages over the traditional storefront, mostly thanks to the technology that's available today. "The best example I can give," says Hirshan, "was a few weeks ago while waiting for a flight in the Fort Lauderdale airport, I was able to handle a client and reserve a cabin on a cruise, while waiting to board a flight! All this was unthinkable not too long ago."

In the age of the Internet, technology trumps all, and, armed with a Blackberry, most of these savvy agents could conduct their business in the middle of a desert (provided it had Wi-Fi access.) Terri Maldonado, "The Cruise Gal," says, "I don't know how I ever lived without my Blackberry! Having my calendar, e-mail and phone in one device, wherever I go, is a real advantage." Indeed, people have taken to calling this all-inclusive communication device a "Crackberry," mocking its addictive draw. Today's virtual agents can work from anywhere—as long as they have the right equipment.

A computer—whether desktop or laptop—is, of course, essential. While allegiances to a computer model and brand (Dell and iMac come up as favorites) vary widely according to the individual user, it is important to have "the fastest computer you can afford," says Maldonado. California-based Lori Pelentay of Kensington Cruises adds that you should have "a high-speed Internet connection" and either "a fantastic host agency" (she uses Montrose Travel) or a server of your own. (For more information on how to choose a host agency and the benefits of working with one, see related story.)

Software is equally important. Tonya Fitzpatrick of Bronze World Travel notes, "A must-must-must-have for a travel agent or any other home-based business is a database. I am constantly surprised at the number of home-based businesses that operate without a database." Home-based agents refer to Clientease, ClientBase Plus and Revelex as fantastically helpful client-relation programs.

Gadgets Galore

Other suggestions for gadgets include a wireless headset that includes a background noise guard. Plantronics is the brand of choice for Pelentay, who says her job entails "being constantly on the phone, whether it's to the cruise lines, or to clients. Ninety-five percent of this job is listening to clients and evaluating their needs and desires." A hands-free headset facilitates mobility and multi-tasking, and for mothers like them, minimizes the sounds of a child crying in the background when they are speaking with clients.

Favorite web sites feature useful tools for agents in this technological age. "I use Intelliguide to get information on destinations I haven't visited," says Becky Theisen, of Becky Theisen Travel, an associate of Strong Travel Service in Austin, TX. "It allows me to get up-to-date for my clients and also provides a professional-looking reference guide to be included in their documents. I also use sites like www.gohawaii.com/travelagents, Centers for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov, www.travel.state.gov, Princess One Source at https://book.princess.com, www.cruisingpower.com, Holland America Line's travel agent headquarters at www.hollandamerica.com/tahq and www.worldairportguide.com. Anything that keeps you up-to-date on product, destination or documentation should be in your "favorites" list!"

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