Networking, making connections, building relationships; calling convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs), researching online, reading reviews: When it comes to deciding what to book and who to work with, each group leader goes about it a little differently. Some let CVBs help them find hotels; others prefer to deal with the property directly. Some ask locals for the best lunch spots, and some ask other group leaders who, what and where to avoid.
When it comes to booking business, these travel planners use all the tricks of the trade to find the best for their clients.
When planning a trip, Sharon Marzec always starts with the destination, and the destination almost always starts with the client.
“I customize my tours to groups, so it largely is dictated by the client,” Marzec said. “If they’ve been on the West Coast for the past three years and now they want to go to an East Coast location, that’s where I start.”
Marzec is the owner of Tour Connections, which she launched more than 15 years ago, and is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She started in the travel industry as the travel administrator for a bank in Wisconsin, and “then when I left the bank, my folks still wanted to travel with me.”
Much of how she puts together trips comes from years of experience in the industry, making connections and building relationships. Every time she leads a group, she asks her travelers about where they’ve been, what they did there and what they would recommend.
“Sometimes I’m escorting one group and researching destinations for another group,” she said.
She continually attends FAM trips “so I have stuff in my back pocket.” During each trip, she thinks of what is appropriate for her clients. For example, if she’s working with an art group, she digs a little deeper than the FAM itinerary to find out about art museums, gardens and art-related experiences. She always tries to include experiences that will appeal to both men and women and likes to feature manufacturing tours.
Marzec also attends travel conferences, calls CVBs to find out about their destinations and subscribes to group travel magazines. She saves articles and files them away in her “state files,” one for each state.
Although CVBs help with hotel bookings, Marzec prefers to call a hotel and book it herself — she does try to go back to the CVBs to let them know she’ll be in town with her group. Marzec likes to deal with the hotel directly because “I get a lot when I call; I can tell what kind of service I’ll get when I get there.”
“I don’t go just by the number of rooms and rate; I go by the service they’re going to get, and that’s the best you can do without a site inspection,” she said.
Jan and Carl’s Tours
For 33 years, Jan Coleman worked for a bank, handling all the travel and planning all the trips. So after being laid off in 2007, it was a natural segue for her and her husband to start Jan and Carl’s Tours.
Her people like one-day trips and dinner theaters, and “being so close to Chicago, there’s tons of things to do,” she said. Some favorites are Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana; the Drury Lane Theatre and Conference Center in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois; and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which also does musicals.
She met a man on a FAM tour who invited them to a production of “The King and I” at the Lyric; that led to the Colemans’ booking “My Fair Lady” for next May. FAM trips and comp tickets are major factors in how she decides what to book. A pair of comp tickets to the Dancing Horses Theatre during an anniversary trip to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, prompted them to put together an overnight itinerary there that features a Christmas show, a trolley tour and a stop at Milaeger’s in Racine to see — and buy — the store’s Christmas decorations and explore the greenhouses.
“I’m getting invited to FAM tours; that’s where I’m getting a lot of new ideas,” she said, adding, “When people give you a comp ticket to go check things out, that’s what really helps.”
Coleman also calls CVBs and chambers of commerce to get ideas, ask questions and gather recommendations about hotels, attractions and restaurants. A couple of years ago, Pennsylvania-based White Star Tours invited her to a dinner in Chicago where she learned about the company’s offerings and discovered that “all I have to do is buy the package, and I can tweak it myself,” she said. Coleman booked a group through White Star Tours to the Tulip Time Festival in Holland, Michigan, in May 2015 and is using the company again to go to Branson in November. She also sometimes uses Collette for longer trips because she knows they are reliable from her time at the bank.