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It’s just a fact that the travel industry loves to salute its suppliers you can’t help but hear about a whole slew of awards from Conde Nast and T+L to our own WAVE awards designed to reward the biggest companies in the business. Well, we decided it was time to give agents some credit too, so we launched the TravelAge West Trendsetters Awards.
We created awards in three categories Best Community Service Effort, Best Agency Success Story and Best Online Marketing Strategy and picked a winner and runner-up in each. The entries that came in were all top notch, and it was very hard for our staff of editors and sponsors (including Royal Caribbean, Globus and Secrets & Dreams Resorts) to choose. When all was said and done, however, as you’ll see on the following pages, we clearly found some of the best agents in the West for our Trendsetters class of 2007.
Rita ZaweidehCaravan-Serai ToursIt’s common in the travel industry to hear people say that “Sept. 11 changed everything.” That would be an understatement in the case of Rita Zawaideh, owner of Caravan-Serai Tours, in Seattle.
Zawaideh was born in Jordan and came to the U.S. with her family at the age of 5. She grew up in Seattle and eventually earned a B.A. and M.A. in Middle East Studies from the University of Washington. She began her travel agency, then called Travel Express, in 1983 and developed a reputation as a specialist in Middle Eastern travel, working to promote those destinations to clients in her adopted country. She also became active in the local Arab-American community, and when the Gulf War broke out, Rita and her agency worked to bring medical relief to Iraq gathering medical supplies at her office and using company buses located in the Middle East to transport the supplies directly to medical groups on the front lines.
After the war, Zawaideh went back to growing her travel agency only to see business dry up overnight after the attacks of Sept. 11. In addition, she began receiving hate mail because of her background and specialty. Rather than let the climate of fear destroy her business, Zawaideh created the Arab American Community Coalition (AAAC). The group is designed to help Seattle’s Arab community combat hate crimes, discrimination and detention issues; to promote travel to the Middle East; and also to create greater understanding between Arabs and Americans.
“As an Arab-American, and having lived in the U.S. most of my life, I felt it was my duty to do this,” Zawaideh said. “I am very proud of where I come from and also proud of being an American, so I felt, as a person who has one leg in each world, it was my responsibility to help people during these times.”
As a result of her actions, Zawaideh and the AAAC has become a resource for everyone from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to the ACLU and the Seattle Police Department. In a time of distrust and polarization, Zawaideh proved herself to be a true peacemaker healing wounds and promoting understanding.
“We also took people to the Middle East as ambassadors to make them understand that not everyone from that part of the world hated Americans and also the reverse,” Zawaideh said. “It made some people decide they did not want to have anything to do with us so we lost some clients. But then we also gained some because we were in the news so much with our work!”
For her effort she has received numerous awards including a United Nations Peace Award and an award from the Greater Council of Churches. She is also a five-time veteran of Conde Nast Traveler’s Top Travel Specialist list.
“By starting this organization,” she said, “I was able to help both communities in understanding each other and working to build bridges between the two.”
Carole WeishaarCarefree Travel (Runner up)In 1994, Carole Weishaar opened a travel agency in Chandler, Ariz., but within less than nine months, she was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer.
“It was a frightening road to recovery,” she said, “but I am thrilled to say I am a 12-year survivor from a cancer that takes the lives of 60 percent of those diagnosed.”
A few years after she was diagnosed, Weishaar met a single mother who was uninsured and very ill.
“She was so brave and I felt tears of frustration sting my eyes while talking to her,” Weishaar said. “As a passionate advocate for women’s issues, I was devastated to learn of this young woman’s story & Upon returning, one of my friends said to me ‘You need to do this. You have to start a foundation to help women like this in need.’”
Weishaar had no idea how to go about starting such a program, “but I knew I had to try.”
Today, Weishaar’s Desert Cancer Foundation of Arizona is dedicated to improving the health of uninsured women throughout Arizona. The all-volunteer, grassroots organization partners with hospitals, health centers and private clinics to bring services into culturally diverse communities. Weishaar is now an independent contractor with Carefree Travel, in Scottsdale. In addition to her work as an agent, Weishaar has become a grant writer and has recently secured funding that will provide life-saving cancer screening for 200 low-income women.
“I have always believed that when a business takes from the community it must give back in some way,” she said. “Many [travel] clients who have been with me since the beginnings are some of the Foundation’s biggest supporters.”
Weishaar’s positive attitude is undoubtedly one of her greatest assets as she reaches out to Arizona’s women.
“I am so blessed to have had, and to continue to have, such wonderful support of my clients, business associates and family,” said Weishaar. “My days are long, but so wonderful. I am living my passion.”
America's Vacation CenterIn many ways, the evolution of America’s Vacation Center (AVC) is a classic American success story. With the courage to make innovative decisions, along with an “adapt or die” philosophy, the Anderson family, owners of AVC, took an approach that was both revolutionary and full of common sense.
Facing a completely different business environment following Sept. 11, Brad and Van, co-presidents of AVC and children of longtime owners Pat and Pal Anderson, made the bold decision to scrap what was up to then a very successful business model for their San Diego agency and do something unique.
“We began shifting our traditional brick-and-mortar agency to that of a host agency with high consumer credibility and brand awareness,” said Brad. “Throughout the transition, the goal of AVC has always been to create the ideal host agency for our independently owned and operated affiliates.”
Because it is a “shared-success” model, AVC only allows high-level professional agents to join its network. In return, AVC supplies these agents with cutting-edge, proprietary technology, extensive support staff and significant training, including its own Webinar series, the Travel Executive Forum. The result has been the growth of one of the largest and most successful travel agencies in North America. The American Express-affiliated agency has won numerous awards, including Travel Agency of the Year for Royal Caribbean, Oceania Cruises and NCL, and agency sales have doubled.
But AVC’s success was far from guaranteed when it remade its business plan.
“First & we wondered whether the vendors would accept our home-based model,” Brad said. “To our benefit, the vendors have accepted our new model with open arms and our vendor relations are better than ever.”
Not content with resting on its laurels, AVC continues to adapt to changes in the industry, especially the need for its agents to stay up to date on the latest products. Still, Brad admits success has been sweet.
“By far, the single best result we’ve experienced from the evolution of AVC over the years has been seeing underpaid and under-appreciated travel agents, almost overnight, become extremely successful business entrepreneurs affiliated with America’s Vacation Center,” said Brad. “Here at AVC, we are extremely proud of the shared-success model that we have created. With this model, everyone wins. The customer, the supplier, the agents and AVC are all in a win-win-win-win situation, and you can’t ask for a better achievement than that.”
Cruise Holidays of Woodinville (Runner-Up)Rich Skinner and Steve Sibley, owners of Cruise Holidays of Woodinville, Wash., noticed that their frontline agents spent a great deal of time educating first-time cruisers about the basics of a cruise vacation, which took away from other sales. What they needed, they figured, was a way to give their clients the information they needed in a compact, easy-to-read, fun way.
Enter “Vinnie the cruise dog,” a West Highland Terrier that “has always dreamed of taking a cruise, but alas & thus far has to settle for the wonderful tales” spun by others. Using Vinnie’s love of cruising as a basis, Skinner created a booklet called “Exploring the Magic of Cruising” that’s used to inspire and inform potential clients.
“We created a compact booklet that we use as a cruising primer, which has substantially reduced educational time and basic questions from our customers,” said Skinner. “We estimate that this one tool has reduced questioning time from prospective clients by at least 50 percent.” The guide has been a big hit with clients, who often request extra copies for referrals, as well as with Cruise Holidays, who gave it a national award for Best Marketing Tool. The agency has garnered local media attention from it as well.
“Our goal was to record $2 million in sales. We recorded $2.3 million. Also, by surpassing our sales goals by 15 percent, we had the highest growth of all Cruise Holidays stores in North America last year,” said Skinner. “This booklet was an important tool in achieving our goal.” Skinner, a former PR rep for Holland America Line, was born just down the road in Seattle. He credits Bob Brennan (“for marketing”), Kirk Lanterman (“financial genius”) and Bob Dickinson (“best salesman in the biz”) as industry role models. He also said he greatly appreciates this Trendsetters acknowledgement.
“It’s great being recognized as a Trendsetter because it helps to validate our theory that a small retail cruise agency can aspire to be competitive with some of the biggest and best in our profession,” he said. “We like to think that even though we are small it doesn’t mean we’re small in creative ideas, and putting those creative ideas into play.”
All-Travel.comVision is key to the success of Los Angeles-based All-Travel.com. Right from the beginning of the Internet boom in the mid-’90s, the agency was one of the first to embrace the Web and see its potential for online travel sales. As a result, All-Travel has been a leader in online marketing ever since.
“Change is one area that we have embraced,” said Eric Maryanov, owner of All-Travel. “That includes the switch we made from predominately a corporate travel agency to an online retail leisure agency.”
Maryanov, a CTC, founded the agency in 1984 and today he is widely considered an industry visionary. He sits on numerous boards, including Signature Travel Network.
“I love the challenges of our business and the variety of business disciplines,” he said.
All-Travel currently operates 14-plus leisure travel Web sites. The sites promote specific luxury cruise suppliers and resort destination products. The goal is not only to sell products, but also to utilize the online marketing activities that allow the agency to build its database of clients.
“We’re very proud of the growth of our luxury cruise sales through the online marketing of our luxury-specific cruise Web sites,” said Maryanov. “Our average cruise yields are double the industry average based on the sales volume we have with our luxury cruise partners. But I’m most proud of our staff of agents who are truly sales professionals and continue to embrace our technology initiatives.
Morris Murdock Travel (Runner-Up)The strategy at Morris Murdock Travel, in Salt Lake City, is as straight-forward as it gets: Offer a wide variety of products online, but direct the customer to purchase from one of the agency’s consultants. Of course, like most things, the devil is in the details.
“We understand that half the fun of traveling is planning the trip, and today’s customers enjoy searching the Web to get ideas, but they also want the expertise of a travel agent,” said Amy Ochoa, marketing manager for Morris Murdock, which recently became an American Express agency. “We created a 15-page written strategy that laid out our plan for reaching our goals. It included demographics, goals, content that needs to be added and benchmarking.”
The online goals included increasing the number of unique visitors to their site by 20 percent, and tying the various agency e-blasts, direct-mail pieces, newspaper ads, posters, in-house training and radio to a single monthly campaign. One of the key moves the agency made is to track phone calls based on geographic region and product. This meant that no matter where the customer was calling from (Morris Murdock has 15 offices in three states), the customer would see a single 800 number and the agency’s marketing department could better track the calls.
“Since starting this a year ago we are now able to compare year to year,” Ochoa said. “We have found that our Web site brings us the largest number of calls per week.”
Despite the wide range of online options, Morris Murdock continues to strive for more online expertise.
“We know there is no science to marketing and so we are studying, benchmarking, networking and analyzing the travel industry every day,” said Ochoa. “We are all in this business because we love to travel and our goal is to share that love of the world with those around us.”
Best Community Service Effort
Rita ZaweidehCarole Weishaar
Best Agency Success Story
America's Vacation CenterCruise Holidays
Best Online Marketing Strategy
All-Travel.comMorris Murdock Travel
Rita Zawaideh: Received a trip to Turku, Finland, for the floating out of Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas. Carole Weishaar, the runner-up, received $1,000 toward the charity related to the agency’s community service effort and a four-night cruise.
Pal Anderson: Received a seven-day trip for two to Rome and Venice. Cruise Holidays of Woodinville, the runner-up, received a four-day, three-night Vancouver City Getaway.
David Van Ness: Received a seven-night Unlimited-Luxury stay at Dreams Puerto Vallarta. Morris Murdock Travel, the runner-up, received a seven-night Unlimited-Luxury stay in a Club Tower Suite at Dreams Cancun.