Get Some Good Hands on Deck

Agents generally handle things themselves, but some situations call for an expert's help.

By: Margot Carmichael Lester

When Arik Anderson, vice president of Executive Travel Center in Rocklin, Calif., got a call from some clients, he knew he might need help.

“My clients were in the Air France lounge waiting for departure and a representative offered to take their coats,” he recalls. “The rep assured my clients the coats would be put on the plane for them.”

Au contraire.

“The coats were never returned and when I wrote a letter, the airline responded with two $100 checks one for each coat,” Anderson says.

“These were very expensive coats, so that just wasn’t going to cover it.”

Anderson sought help from his attorney, who wrote Air France threatening legal action if proper compensation were not offered. “As soon as they saw the attorney getting involved, they wanted to deal with it.”

See You In Court

Agents generally handle things themselves but some situations, like Anderson’s problem, require knowledge of the law and the time to pursue justice. Most travel agents don’t possess either.

“You need to have an attorney to consult for revising contracts, issuing engagement letters, etcetera,” says Brian Breiter, an attorney based in Los Angeles. He also suggests consulting an attorney for help in recovering bad debts and drafting some letters, although legal advice is optional in such areas.

The real value of legal counsel is in litigation or in disputes with airlines, rental car agencies and tour operators.

“You might need a refund for someone who got sick on a cruise ship or from a contractor that went out of business,” Breiter explains, adding that it is best to have a relationship with a reputable attorney before you need one.

Anderson agrees. “I have a couple of attorneys I work with closely to write letters and help me handle disputes.”

He also has negotiated a thrifty deal. “You can trade off services,” he adds, “otherwise it can be expensive.”

The best way to find a general-purpose attorney is to ask friends and colleagues for referrals, especially as you need counsel with expertise in travel matters.

If you can’t find a referral, a quick call to the local bar association should yield the names of reputable attorneys in your area.

By The Numbers

“Everybody with their own business needs a CPA, if only for compliance issues,” advises Lisa Drake, a certified public accountant with Barnes & Associates of San Rafael, Calif. “You know travel, not the tax code.”

The value of a good accountant can go beyond filing your tax returns, however. Your accountant can be a good financial advisor as well, providing strategic analysis, growth planning and general business guidance.

“I use my accountant for advice such as whether I should buy another travel agency, how to determine compensation for lead agents based on their sales, etcetera,” says Billie Ruff, owner and manager of Travel Cafe in Billings, Mont.

“I am not qualified to do my own taxes, so it is vital that he takes care of that as well.” she said.

Drake offers two key tips for finding a good accountant:

Look for expertise in your line of business.

Even a general practice should have someone with experience in travel or an analogous industry.

Interview CPAs as you would prospective employees and ask to meet the whole team. Sometimes the principal closes the account, but others in the office actually work on it.

Size is also a consideration. “Some people are comfortable with bigger firms, others with small firms,” Drake says.

Barnes & Associates, for example, is a small firm. “We give really personal attention to our clients without a lot of hierarchy. We don’t have banks of researchers researching client questions and then reporting up the command chain.”

If you’re unsure about what you want and need, schedule interviews with several firms before making a choice about the right one for you.

Ask colleagues for referrals or check with your local or state association of CPAs for a list of firms in your town.