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There’s no doubt that 2009 was a tough year for the travel industry, and many good agencies didn’t survive the economic downturn. So, it is especially satisfying to acknowledge some of the agents who not only survived, but thrived, leading the way for others in our annual Trendsetter Awards.
Best Recession Survival Story or StrategySponsor: Monograms
Andi MyszaMontrose TravelFaced with the challenge of an economy in freefall, Montrose Travel, based in Montrose, Calif., had come to a crossroads. In order to survive, it would have to lay off employees or make some drastic changes. Thankfully, the agency made the correct choice.
“Not willing to mortgage our future by laying people off, we decided to cut salaries 10 percent across the board — and 100 percent for our three owners — and planted the carrot that, if the company performed well, salaries would be completely reinstated in only 90 days,” explained Andi Mysza, co-owner and president, independent contractor division at Montrose Travel. “We set daily goals and posted daily achievements. We turned our entire company into an army of selling machines. We emphasized that most companies go into their bunkers and hunker down in times like these, but Montrose Travel doesn’t hunker down — we fight!”
This plan of attack paid off. By being honest with its employees; giving employees more responsibility for the ultimate success of the business; and creating an atmosphere of unwavering teamwork, Montrose Travel actually increased its Web traffic, call volume and transactions. The strategy resulted in more than $3.3 million in new business and, most importantly, the agency not only had zero layoffs, it was able to hire others.
Such success shouldn’t really be surprising for a family business that was established in 1956 and has since grown into a travel powerhouse, with 130 employees and more than 500 independent contractors.
“Our company is based on some very core principles established by our parents, Joe Sr. and Leora McClure,” said Mysza. “Strong financials, no debt, personal service — our mom used to kiss every client who walked through the door — and firsthand product knowledge.”
In the fashion of typical team spirit, Mysza said the credit belongs to the entire staff of Montrose Travel.
“We’re most proud of the fact that everyone in our company worked together and rose to the occasion. This enabled us to retain, rather than layoff, our staff. And, while others were laying people off, we were even able to continue to hire,” she said. “Every single person contributed to the goal, either leadership, ideas, sales or support. Our success is to be credited to everyone, not one single person.”
Brad and Van AndersonAmerica’s Vacation Center/Avoya Travel (Runner Up)In a year marked by economic uncertainty, America’s Vacation Center (AVC)/Avoya Travel met the challenge by focusing on unique solutions. In particular, the agency’s Travel Agent Stimulus Plan was created with the purpose of investing several million dollars to support and improve the travel agent distribution channel. By improving the customer experience; supporting the agency community; strengthening supplier relationships; and enhancing its business development, AVC/Avoya not only survived, but thrived in 2009.
Best Community Service EffortSponsor: Gogo Worldwide Vacations
Patrick BastienAltourEven with the economic difficulties at home last year, it was gratifying to see travel agents continue to give back to their communities, near and far, in order to make a difference. Patrick Bastien, of Altour, is one such person.
As the son of Haitian immigrants, Bastien really didn’t get to know the country of his heritage until just the last few years.
“I visited Haiti when I was 5 years old and didn’t return again until 2007,” Bastien told TAW. “I rediscovered a country full of beauty and incredible resources.”
Bastien’s wife was born in the Dominican Republic and he has since become a specialist in traveling to the island. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti last January, Bastien, who is based in Altour’s West Los Angeles office, took the lead in the agency’s disaster-relief effort. Employees of Altour raised $11,000 for aid in the country, and this amount was matched by Altour’s president and founder, Alexandre Chemla. Working with several nonprofit organizations on the ground, as well as Scattering Resources, a nonprofit that Bastien himself had helped establish, he traveled back and forth to Haiti to make sure the contribution was used to assist the Haitian people with rebuilding their country.
“As part of the Haitian diaspora, since long before the earthquake, I always wanted to find a way to help the people of Haiti,” Bastien said. “After the disaster, I found that it was the perfect opportunity for me to actually get in and help hands-on at a time when the country could use all the help they could get. I didn’t think twice about doing whatever I could to find a way to get to Haiti and bring as much supply and aid as I could.”
Bastien’s effort is not only helping the country in the short term, but he has developed relationships that have the potential to assist the country for years to come.
“We have made some great contacts and relationships with major companies and organizations here in the states that have committed to providing resources,” Bastien explained. “And with these donations, we are seeing schools being rebuilt and clinics being resupplied and people regaining their sense of hope for the future. I’m very grateful for Altour’s mission in raising money for Haiti relief and supporting me and allowing me to be able to continue my hands-on work.”
Marc KassoufPride Travel (Runner Up)For almost seven years, Pride Travel has been supporting the Center Long Beach, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the local community by offering counseling, healthcare, youth assistance and elder-care assistance. Pride Travel has assisted in fundraisers and events. In addition, employees at Pride Travel roll-up their sleeves twice a week and get personally involved in helping the at-risk homeless youth at the center.
Travel Agent Sales SuperstarSponsor: Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International
Nathan DePetrisPride TravelOne of the keys to the success of our Trendsetter winner in the category of Travel Agent Sales Superstar is his emphasis on individual client needs and agent education. Nathan DePetris, co-owner and COO of Pride Travel in Long Beach, Calif., mandates rigorous training and education for his staff, and requires them to demonstrate extensive on-the-ground knowledge. It’s a mandate that he follows as well.
“No matter how much I may already know, I’m fascinated by the amount of product, destination and travel information there is to learn,” DePetris said. “My personal goal is to continuously enhance, expand and extend my knowledge base through education and certification programs that translate into better expertise to deliver superlative customer travel experiences for our clients.”
Pride Travel, which DePetris co-owns with his husband, Marc Kassouf, is focused on building customized travel products for FIT and group travelers; growing supplier relationships; maximizing technology; and exceeding client expectations. A recent example of this is the way he stepped in to salvage a major affinity group booking that was in danger of falling apart. A celebrity music duo had been working with another travel agency when negotiations broke down with only six months to the travel date and zero bookings. Through his direct efforts, DePetris was able to save the cruise, thereby gaining him new customers as well as invaluable PR.
DePetris came to a career in travel after many years spent working in the corporate and retail management sector, when he decided to seek out a challenging, but balanced, career and marry that to one of his true loves: the desire to travel and experience the world. He said that finds the best part of his job to be “in collaborating with clients to continuously create the journey of a lifetime.”
DePetris was honored to be recognized with a Trendsetter Award for his efforts.
“Although I’ve always known that my work is good,” he said, “being recognized by my industry peers and professionals is a wonderful reiteration of that.”
Bruce FisherHawaii Aloha Travel (Runner Up)Bruce Fisher has become a Travel Agent Sales Superstar in part by demonstrating proven success in adapting social networking, blogging and podcasting into his business model. His website receives more than 42,000 unique visitors a month, all organically, which has helped his agency record more than $8.6 million in sales last year. Using new technology and creative thinking has helped Fisher share his love of Hawaii with a growing number of clients.
Best Group Booking Sales Effort Sponsor: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide
Jeff and Alicia AbelsSEACruisesTo say that Jeff and Alicia Abels are experts on group bookings would be an understatement.
“About 10 years ago, we formed a group cruise division as part of our Vacation Center agency and named it SEACruises, which is an acronym for Special Events Aboard Cruises,” Jeff Abels said. “Today, SEACruises handles 25 to 30 unique events on cruises every year, including corporate and incentive groups, family reunions, fundraisers and unique affinity groups such as aerobics, salsa dancing, jazz cruises and even an annual ukulele group.”
For a recent convention of an international multilevel marketing company’s top-producing business owners, SEACruises’ expertise was put to the test. The 800-plus members of this group came from countries all over the world, including the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Hungary, Russia, Israel and Australia. In order to pull off the meeting onboard the Navigator of the Seas, SEACruises had to plan for 18 general sessions, workshops and breakouts conducted in three venues in as many as seven languages using translators and translation equipment. The agency also had to arrange for customized shore excursions in six international ports with as many as 17 buses with escorts and interpreters.
“There was a tremendous amount of preparation and coordination handled in-house, combined with the efforts of our onboard Dream Team working in concert to handle this complex group movement with such precision, and to put smiles on the faces of so many,” said Abels. “It was truly a trip of a lifetime for the majority of our guests, and a company executive stated that it may have been the most significant and successful convention in their 28-year history.”
Even better, the company has booked a second group with SEACruises of more than 400 business owners from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore onboard the Freedom of the Seas this summer.
“SEACruises is growing rapidly through assisting our 35-plus independent contractors in developing group cruises and supporting their groups with our innovative marketing efforts, in-house reservation staff and unique state-of-the-art group cruise technology platforms,” said Abels. “We are always looking for new independent contractors interested in growing their group cruise business.”
Sharon Kay HowellTravel MastersKnowing that faith-based travel and educational enrichment are growing trends, Howell combined both markets, creating a program she called Creative Learning on Location, made up of itineraries especially for church groups. Howell then made the experience unique. For example, she hired a speaker to portray a Quaker preacher in order to help educate one group in Williamsburg, Va., and had a survivor of the Terezin concentration camp speak to a group in the Czech Republic. Today, these programs are being individually branded and customized by church groups.
Andi MyszaBrad and Van Anderson
Best Community Service Effort Sponsor: Gogo Worldwide Vacations
Patrick BastienMarc Kassouf
Travel Agent Sales Superstar Sponsor: Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International
Nathan DePetrisBruce Fisher
Jeff and Alicia AbelsSharon Kay Howell
Past WinnersView the winners of the TravelAge West 2009 Trendsetters Awards
Best Recession Survival Story or StrategySponsor: Monograms
Prize: The winner received a week in Paris for two, while the runner-up received a six-night Montreal & Quebec City vacation for two.
As part of Globus Family of Brands, Monograms, the sponsor for this Trendsetter Award, has a strong history of supporting agents and, in this particularly difficult year, the company wanted to focus its support on some of the agencies that were bright spots in the industry.
“We feel it’s important to not just tell agents that we appreciate them, but to go a step beyond and recognize specific achievements,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing. “We see countless cases where one great idea sparks dozens more for other agents. There’s lots of creativity out there, and stories like those revealed in the Trendsetter nominations help bring out that creativity on a much broader scale.”
Born pointed out that Globus built its business on providing travel agents with the best combination of product, service, rewards and, most of all, trust. The company’s philosophy is that they want to help agents build business, because the more successful agents are, the more successful Globus’ brands are.
“From the inception of the WAVE Awards, we’ve recognized that TravelAge West (TAW) has created a unique opportunity to recognize the real heroes in the travel industry — travel agents,” said Born. “While most awards’ programs focus on just the suppliers, we wanted to help TAW in its efforts to turn the spotlight back on agents. That fits perfectly into a core value at the Globus family, as our efforts are designed to put our customers first, specifically, to support agents in their day-to-day acts of heroism.”
Prize: The winner and runner-up each received a five-night stay for two at the Fairmont Mayakoba on the Riviera Maya, Mexico.
Michele Kish, president of Gogo Worldwide Vacations, felt it was especially important to acknowledge agents for their community service efforts because it falls in line with her company’s philosophy.
“There are so many awards for the industry suppliers, we felt it was a great idea to recognize the efforts of the travel agents who fuel the business,” said Kish. “We felt that sponsoring the Best Community Service Effort Award aligned with many of our philosophies, such as our recently introduced green initiative. We are always looking at ways to give back to the destinations we sell and the industry as a whole.”
According to Kish, Gogo has always felt strongly about the need to support agents.
“Every initiative we create is to support travel agents,” she said. “Our price beat policy ensures an agent will never lose a sale because of price — they can advertise they’ll beat an online retailer and have the confidence we’ll help them close that sale. We’ve also changed our commission payment policy and are paying agents at time of final payment instead of after their customer departs. Agents now even have the option to get their commission paid electronically.”
Kish cited the company’s unrivaled range of product offerings, its competitive commissions and its innovative marketing programs as additional ways it partners with agents.
“The agents are really looking to support companies who support them and don’t compete with them,” said Kish.
Prize: The winner received a seven-night Caribbean Cruise on Celebrity Cruises for two in a veranda stateroom. The runner-up prize from Royal Caribbean is a seven-night Mexican Riviera Cruise for two onboard Mariner of the Seas.
“Celebrity Cruises helps agents in many ways, but the biggest is that our impeccable service and cuisine onboard keeps their clients coming back to Celebrity,” said Keith Lane, field sales vice president for Celebrity, one of the sponsors of the Trendsetter Award for Travel Agent Sales Superstar.
Lane pointed to the fact that the cruise line has won back-to-back TravelAge West WAVE Awards in 2009 and 2010 for the Cruise Line With the Highest Client Satisfaction.
“Celebrity Cruises provides the ultimate in premium cruising, designed for you,” Lane said. “Our travel professionals know they can design a cruise for their clients with our Celebrity Life activities, our award-winning cuisine, service and support on each and every cruise. In addition, our exceptional onboard staff and sales managers in the field provide educational support and knowledge on land and a commitment to excellence at sea, everyday.”
Lane said that Celebrity felt strongly about sponsoring this award in part because of the emphasis it places on agent development.
“Everyone likes to be recognized for a job well done,” he said. “However, we have a responsibility — all of us within the travel industry — to find, inspire and motivate future and current agents to new heights of professionalism and what it truly means to be a travel professional.”
Prize: The winner received a seven-night stay in an oceanfront room at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel & Resort. The runner-up prize from Starwood is a five-night stay at The Westin Maui Resort & Spa.
According to Joshua Poole, account director of global retail leisure and luxury sales for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, the company chose to sponsor this Trendsetter Award because it believes in supporting agents who go the extra mile and come up with innovative ways to make customer experiences better.
“We all learn by example, and in today’s ever-changing travel environment, learning from peers and adapting new ideas is essential for survival,” said Poole. “At Starwood, we know that innovation is a necessity for future success and … we truly hope that the efforts of the Trendsetter winners will offer ideas and inspiration to fellow travel professional colleagues that can only elevate the business level of the entire profession.”
Poole said that Starwood Hotels & Resorts is fully aware of the value of travel professionals to its business — providing its properties with loyal, high-yield customers. For that reason, Starwood continues to invest every year in new travel professional initiatives.
“Our dedicated travel professional website, Starwood Pro.com, offers access to information on all of our 1,000 properties in 100 countries,” said Poole. “It also provides details on all commissionable special offers, and it provides booking access for those who prefer online booking methods.”
In addition, the StarwoodPro site is home to the company’s travel professional learning and development program, ProLearning.
“Graduates of the first module of that program earn exclusive access to our travel professional rate plan — called STARPRO — which offers industry rates starting at $69 a night for our StarwoodPros,” said Poole. “On the site, travel professionals also have access to Starwood’s Book and Win Big travel professional incentive program.”
Jeff, Michael and David Anderson
Jeff and Alicia Abels
Sharon Kay Howell