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Satisfactory Travel Agencies Prove Elusive : For Small Firms, Going Can Be Tough

From the Baltimore Sun

Many Fortune 500 companies have departments whose sole function is to ensure that business travel arrangements are economical and dovetail with their firm’s needs. Small to medium-size businesses generally don’t have that luxury and must deal with travel agencies.

It can be difficult, although not impossible, to locate an agency that routinely locates bargain rates, is attentive to a company’s travel requirements and won’t send employees winging off to Athens, Ga., when they need to go to Athens, Greece.

“In the travel business, we refer to a small company as someone who spends less than $500,000 on air travel a year,” said Ralph Brown, a travel consultant who owns R.D. Brown and Co. in Hoffman Estates, Ill. The management consulting concern specializes in business travel.

“A small company should investigate the travel agency by going on site to do an inspection,” Brown said. By going to the agency, “you determine the level of professionalism that exists with a staff. For example, if you go to an agency and everyone is wearing an aloha shirt, it does not provide any evidence of professionalism in terms of business travel. You really want the agency to match the corporate culture that you have.

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“You want to make sure that they’re oriented toward cost-saving possibilities. I would want references from five major accounts that they already have. That would help you determine how effective they’ve been in providing low-cost alternatives.”

Charles Morris, president of Baltimore-based Chesapeake Biological Laboratories Inc., a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, keeps a watchful eye on business travel expenses.

“We had a ticket come through here about 6 months ago for $600 or $700 for one of our employees,” Morris said. “I happened to pick up the phone and got a ticket about $300 lower that was leaving on the same day. The airline that offered the lower rate was even on a slightly better schedule.”

Morris dropped his travel agency, a fairly large one located in the city. “The point is, a travel agency is a service organization, and they’ve got to provide you with the best alternatives--and this is not what I think happens very often,” he said.

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“The problem we have found with some of the agencies is they don’t necessary give you all of the options or alternatives, and you wind up spending a lot more than you have to. Our experience has not been the greatest, although we’re currently using a relatively small agency that I think does that quite well.”

Gilbert V. Levin, chief executive officer of a Beltsville, Md., biotechnology firm called Biospherics Inc., also has fired and hired several agencies in his quest for top-notch service.

“We have, I guess, been through about four or five travel agencies in about 6 years,” Levin said. “They started out doing a lot of nice things, but then they stopped.”

On one occasion, one of Levin’s employees booked on a flight to Europe managed on his own to find a ticket costing half as much. The employee was reluctant to tell Levin.

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“He was worried that he was in trouble,” Levin said. “I tried to convince him that corporate policy is really saving money.”

Susan Grace, whose S.D.G. Consultants of Southborough, Mass., helps businesses select travel agencies, stresses stability.

“You have to make sure that they’ve been in business a few years and that they’re an established agency,” Grace said. “Stability is real important in this business. A lot of agencies are going out of business because they haven’t been run properly and because mega-agencies have come in and taken away business.”

Dominique Gignoux, chief executive officer of Data Measurement Corp., a Gaithersburg, Md., manufacturer of industrial measurement and control systems, said he has yet to find a travel agency that totally satisfies his needs.

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“Most of them will sell package tours to Jamaica, but none of them really know too well the best or least expensive way to go to Bombay.”


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