---- P.G., W.Va.
A: The travel business is undergoing a revolution right now as our
increasingly wired society allows travelers to book their own airplane, hotel, and car reservations directly online. The small travel agency, with the overhead of an office and administrative expenses, is gradually becoming less common as larger agencies that specialize in particular niches -- such as business, international, or adventure travel -- are becoming more and more dominant.
If you want to start a home-based travel business, you will need to become an expert about the travel business. You'll be best-positioned for success if you find an area you can specialize in, experts say. Do you speak another language? Do you have family connections in a foreign country? Can you lead tours? Can you book the cheapest airplane reservations? Are you something of an adventurer, who can offer family biking or kayaking packages -- or wine-country walking tours -- with the kind of authoritative background that will convince your clients to trust you with their precious vacation time and spending money?
Because so much research and so many travel-booking functions can be done online, opening a home travel agency is certainly possible, says Paul Edwards, a work-at-home consultant and author of Best Home Businesses for the 21st Century (Tarcher/Putnam, 1999). Says Edwards: "Terrific service is the key to making it today."
FIRST STEPS. As an independent contractor, you'll be in a position to give specialized service to your clients -- something they'll appreciate in this increasingly automated world. Make sure that you follow up with your clients after they return from their trips. If they're happy, ask them to please pass your name along to their friends and relatives when vacation time rolls around again.
Edwards suggests that you associate with one or more established travel agencies as an outside salesperson in order to get started. That way, you bring clients into the agency, do the research for them, make bookings, and then transmit the reservations to the agency, which will be set up with a computerized reservation system that does the actual transaction and can print out paper tickets, if the client requests them. You should be able to negotiate 60% to 80% of the commission for that level of service, he says. If any agency asks you to pay a fee for the privilege of bringing them business, be very wary, Edwards warns. These so-called "card mills" are a scam and have been the targets of Federal Trade Commission actions in the past.
Start your research by joining one or more of the organizations for professional travel agents and reading their background materials and publications: the American Society of Travel Agents (www.astanet.com), the Institute of
Certified Travel Agents (www.icta.com) -- which offers a home-study course, and the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (www.nacta.com) --
which appeals specifically to home-based and independent agents, could all be helpful. You should also read up on the topic, starting with, How to Start a Home Based Travel Agency, by Tom and Joanie Ogg, available at Amazon.com for $29.95. Good luck.