Travel agents turn to bargain-hunting

April 11, 1991|By Maria Mallory

Thanks to its trusty fax machine, Safe Harbor Business Travel Group Inc. saved a client $8,000.

When America West Airlines slashed its ticket prices in a special promotion in January, the folks at the Inner Harbor-based travel agency faxed "hot sheets" to its clients, who had only three days to snag the half-priced tickets.

One client, who was scheduled to do business in Hawaii later in the year, bought 22 round-trip tickets to the Aloha state for the bargain price of $392 apiece, a savings of more than $8,000.

For Safe Harbor and other agents vying for corporate accounts, the client's demand for savings rings louder than ever now that the recession has landed. As a result, the role of travel agent is evolving from mere reservationist to cost-management consultant.

Corporate America embarked on 155 million business trips last year, spending more than $350 billion on plane tickets, hotels, meals and rental cars.

With that much cash on the line, corporations are paying particular interest to their travel budgets, especially in these tough economic times.

"The recession has really renewed and invigorated management's attention to travel and entertainment as a manageable portion of the budget," said Michael P. Woodward, vice president of consulting services for Travel Management Services, a unit of American Express Co.

With airlines scrambling to jump-start a stalled travel industry, gimmicks and promotions abound. "Airline fares change minute by minute, day by day," said Robert Ellenby, who founded Safe Harbor.

There were "just two types of fares: first class and coach" when he started in the business in the early 1970s, he said.

TC Now U.S. airlines are meeting their fiercest competition since they were deregulated a decade ago, and agencies such as Safe Harbor have equipped themselves with tools to capitalize on the chaos.

Those tools include newsletters, faxes and frequent face-to-face consultations to relay changes in fares and conditions to corporate travel managers, who monitor travel budgets and set corporate policy.

Technology is making the job easier, however. Improved computer programs allow agents to automatically scan airline reservation systems for seats that open up at attractive prices.

At Hunt Valley-based Travel Destinations of New York Inc., the "Integrity" computer system does that job. Integrity "checks every single reservation every single night until the time of departure," said Stanley Levine, executive vice president at Travel Destinations. If a cheaper fare is found, the system will book the flight automatically if it fits with the traveler's plans. Otherwise, the system will highlight the change for the agent, who then will call the traveler with the updated information.

Integrity also verifies the reservation's accuracy against the passenger's corporate travel guidelines to ensure that the arrangements are in keeping with corporate policy, Mr. Levine says.

Agents also use their computers to track corporate spending on rental cars, hotels and air travel, information that can be used as leverage in negotiating deals with frequently patronized vendors.

For example, with the help of the nearby American Express Business Travel Center, Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s Linthicum-based southeast division is taking advantage of its buying power.

The agency compiled a list of the cities most frequently visited by Westinghouse travelers. With that data in hand, the division negotiated up to 10 percent off the coach fares offered by select airlines that fly to those cities. Westinghouse gets the lower rates in exchange for instructing its employees to use those airlines, said William R. Kinsella, corporate travel manager, who declined to identify the participating carriers.

Travel agencies live and die by the volume of commissions they earn from the airlines, hotels and car rental companies. In most cases, their clients don't pay a dime. Therefore, survival depends exclusively on pleasing clients and winning their continued business.

"We're one of the few businesses that work as hard as we do to make less money," said Mr. Ellenby. "The better deals you get for your clients, the more clients you get."

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