Austin Unveils ‘Chalkboard Specials’

Newly expanded consortium unveils private-label e-mail marketing tool at annual conference

By: David Peterkofsky

SAN FRANCISCO Fresh on the heels of acquiring two smaller consortia, Austin Associates has announced a new e-mail marketing program for its 700 member agencies.

The new Chalkboard Specials program will list up to 10 exclusively negotiated deals in a weekly e-mail blast sent to the client lists of participating agencies, according to Rich Abrahams, Austin’s marketing director. The program, announced during Austin’s annual meeting here, is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2003.

E-mail stands out as a far more cost-effective means of communicating with clients than direct mail or a consumer-oriented Web site, said Abrahams. He said Austin expects 50 to 100 agencies to sign up for the service, with each likely to provide 1,000 or more addresses for the Chalkboard Specials database.

Also at the conference, Austin President Norman Cotton affirmed that Denver-based 5Star Travel Association, the organization’s newest acquisition, will maintain its regional identity, much as Coast Travel Group of Napa, Calif., did when Austin acquired it two years ago.

“We expect to maintain that autonomy forever,” Cotton said of 5Star, which counts approximately 75 retailers from the Rocky Mountain region in its ranks. Austin also recently purchased Travel Design Associates, a 200-member consortium based in Santa Clara, Calif. (TravelAge West, Oct. 28).

Added Abrahams: “Regionalization is very important to us. We have a backbone of national vendors, but Jim [Watts, 5Star’s president] created a special culture at 5Star. We really want to carry that through on a regular basis whenever possible.”

Cotton said Austin hasn’t ruled out acquiring other regional consortia in the near future, saying only that he has talked with other agency groups but “nothing is imminent.”

‘Super Agency’

Cotton said Austin considered purchasing iTASN, a network of home-based agents, but decided to keep it as a preferred vendor. Austin partnered with iTASN last year for its “super agency” project, which pools agents’ volume to get higher commissions from suppliers.

He said that Austin views the network as invaluable for many of its members. “We think we helped some agencies stay in business,’’ Cotton said, adding that iTASN’s preferred-vendor agreements with airlines complement Austin’s own vendor deals.

Also at the conference, Marybeth Bond, a travel writer and spokeswoman for Maupintour’s Gutsy Women Travel division, offered insights into the women’s travel market.

In the past seven years, Bond said, there has been a 230% increase in women-only tours, and women already constitute 75% of all adventure-travel clients. Bond also noted that the average participant in women-only tours “is not some 28-year-old anorexic model type,” but a woman who’s 47 and wears a size 12 dress.

To attract clients to this niche, Bond said, agents need look no further than their existing client list.

“You have very little time to market,” she said, “so who are the best clients to reach out to? The ones you already have.”

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