Academy Travel: In The News

Agent@Home Magazine
Cover Focus
When Little Is a Lot
By Kate Rice
Published on: April 1, 2007

Small host agencies can offer support and back up tailored to your needs

Are you looking for cozy customization? Small host agencies may be right for you.

These are agencies that often grew organically. In some instances, a host agency got its start when an agent at a brick-and-mortar agency relocated and continued to work for that agency from a remote location. In others, an agency that has long used independent contractors simply took advantage of evolving technology to formalize a host agency strategy. In some cases, an agency owner might have taken a look at the changes happening in the industry and made a conscious decision to host independents. And in others, an agent originally worked from home, saw his or her business grow, and recognized the opportunity of acting as a host for other agents at home.

Evolving technologies make it easier for small hosts to communicate with their agents, to help them network with each other and to help suppliers communicate information to agents more quickly. Small hosts, then, can use a technological platform that rivals those of big hosts. They also can put multiple tools such as booking engines, information about other agents' sales, marketing information, supplier news and specials into one place. That kind of integration of tools and information allows small hosts to give agents at home highly efficient operating systems.

But what makes small hosts most attractive is a certain coziness. "We've gotten to know each other's families, each other's kids," says Penney Rudicil, owner of The Travel Planner in Hendersonville, Tenn., who works with 12 at-home agents, and eastern regional manager for the Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN). "We're a big extended family."

That said, here are top reasons to affiliate with a small host agency:

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You want intimacy with like-minded colleagues. A small host can be a group of friends working together. Lisa Givas, owner of Academy Travel, Manahawkin, N.J., has two dozen agents at home affiliating with her host agency, who work together to sell Disney. Givas, a stay-at-home mother, initially tried working with host agencies. But they gave her little support and didn't understand Givas' idea of specializing.

Givas didn't want to sell anything but Disney, a product she loved that fit in with her family's lifestyle, and so she went out on her own. She held Disney nights in ice cream shops, diners and movie theaters and visited Disney resort areas. Her friends watched, noted her frequent trips to Disney and wanted in. She pulled a few good friends into her business and became a small host agency. They now sell Disney together, have their own Disney representative, travel as a group on site inspections and have fun together.

"It's a great network," says Jayne Petit-Clair, one of the member agents, who lives in Barnegat, N.J.

<RUN-IN>You're a newbie. Petit-Clair is the perfect example of someone who had wanted to be a travel agent but thought she had to go to school, which was difficult with two small children at home. She stumbled onto Academy Travel when booking a trip to Disney. Givas asked her if she was interested in becoming a travel agent. "I jumped on it," Petit-Clair says.

She paid extra attention to her Disney experience on her first trip, and when she came back, she went straight to work. "She was able to teach me everything right at Academy," she says of Givas. Petit-Clair supplemented that training with supplier training from Disney, Universal Studios and similar resorts and destinations.

You want handholding. Small host agencies that provide proper support know and understand you. "You're not left alone," Petit-Clair says.

Robbert van Bloemendaal, president of IC Travel Host in Dallas, which has 60 to 70 agents at home in its network, says relationships are paramount: "Rather than everything being business-like and straight by the book, we spend a little time talking to each other about our lives. It's more than a business, it's also a relationship."

You're an experienced agent with a solid book of business. John Fahl, president of Carlson Millstream Travel, LLC, in Finley, Ohio, who operates MIT Agents as a small host that is a division of Carlson Millstream, courts experienced travel agents. He estimates that 30 percent of his agents produce 70 percent of the business.

He says that what he has to offer is attractive to small agencies doing $1 million to $1.5 million a year. The overhead costs of operating an agency and associated business fees can be prohibitively expensive for an agency of that size. By offering them coverage under his agency's errors and omission coverage, his affiliation with Carlson Wagonlit, and similar services, he takes all of those costs out of the equation for them.

Fahl also does not charge startup fees or monthly fees, and he returns 90 percent of commissions to agents and pays every two weeks by direct deposit. He provides GDS connections to agents who want it and charges $7 for each ticket an agent issues. "They work as much or as little as they want," he says.

You want clout with suppliers. Small hosts may be members of consortia, franchises or other marketing associations that have clout with suppliers, allowing them to provide higher commissions and value-added components to travel offers that help you differentiate yourself from low-cost packages that your customers might find on the Internet.

For example, IC Travel Host is a division of Carlson Wagonlit All About Travel. "We're part of a very big franchise, and because of that, we have a number of tools and better commission plans and overrides available to us," van Bloemendaal says.

His agency became a host about eight years ago, when an agent friend of his didn't have an ARC number and needed to do ticketing. So van Bloemendaal set her up with PC Anywhere, enabling her to take control of his computer and do her ticketing from her office. It was also a good move for van Bloemendaal, because he was facing Sabre shortfall fees for not doing enough ticketing.

"I thought, ‘This is a good idea!'" he says. "It's a chicken-and-egg story. The more we produce, the higher our tiers are with the vendors and the more our commissions are. We earn by all of us working together."

You want problem-solving resources for your clients. A host agency's affiliation with an organization that has supplier clout also buys troubleshooting resources. If something goes wrong for one of your clients, you're affiliated with an organization that produces numbers big enough to get a supplier's attention. "If there's a problem, we can get it fixed for you," van Bloemendaal says.

You want back up. Affiliating with a small host means you can hand off your phones and clients to other agents in the network and turn to others who have expertise in areas you're unfamiliar with.

Patricia Bannister, owner of Bannister Travel in Senatobia, Miss., and director of OSSN's Memphis chapter, has eight agents at home who are part of her small host agency. One of her agents is an airfare whiz. "I'd rather go to the dentist than deal with airfare," says Bannister, who always hands over all of her air business to that agent.

Agents affiliated with The Travel Planner refer business to each other. Many are mothers. If someone has an appointment or goes on vacation, other agents will cover her phone for her. The agents have a database network that allows them to go into another agent's database in those circumstances. "There's a trust factor there," Rudicil says. "You can't do that with a large agency, because you don't get to know each other well."

You get training that's tailored to you and your model. Small hosts that do it properly can do one-on-one training. They also offer group sessions. Rudicil holds team meetings at her kitchen table, for example. The focus changes monthly. One session might focus on a particular website, another on a supplier, yet another on a destination.

You want a flat hierarchy. Small hosts can provide instant accessibility. Academy Travel's Givas finds herself helping out her agents on Saturday nights. Others offer similar access.

"My door is always open," IC Travel Host's van Bloemendaal says. "The agents can always call me personally. I don't have a secretary; they can talk to me whenever they want about anything they want."

Often, members of small host agencies are geographically located near each other. For example, Petit-Clair lives one town over from Givas and sees many of the other agents who work with Academy Travel.

You can share costs. You don't have to foot the entire bill for marketing and other tools. For example, agents in Rudicil's host operation band together to share the costs of everything from participating in bridal shows to funding radio commercials.

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