How to Start a Travel Service

Low-to-No-Cost Promotional Techniques

So now that you've probably spent all or most of your startup capital-on paper, at least-here's some good news: There are a few more things you can do to promote your business that are free or virtually cost-free. Public relations tools like newsletters and feature articles, as well as tactics like public speaking and networking, won't necessarily replace word-of-mouth and good old-fashioned advertising techniques. But they do have a place in a marketing campaign because they can generate extra exposure for your business and increase goodwill among prospective clients, both of which can drive new clients to your business. Here's how to use these powerful public relations tools.

Newsletters
Newsletters are a great tool for business development. In addition to giving you a forum where you can talk at length about the services and specials you offer, you'll find that newsletters are easy to produce and light on the budget, especially if they're digital rather than print. Most commonly, travel services owners use newsletters to prospect for new business, keep previous customers informed about current specials, and generate interest in new destinations and packages they're offering. All you need to become a newsletter publisher is a computer, software like Microsoft Office (which has a number of newsletter templates you can customize), some colorful adjectives and a little imagination.

There are two kinds of newsletters most commonly used by travel services businesses. Informational newsletters usually contain info about new travel packages and destinations, travel tips, advisories, bios of the owner and/or staff, if applicable, and anything else that might be interesting to a traveler. They may also contain profiles of selected destinations ("What to see on Wednesdays in Kuala Lumpur"), fun things like checklists ("Top 10 things to do in Fiji with chewing gum and a ball-peen hammer!"), and easy quizzes ("Name that volcano goddess!"). In addition to using them to prospect for new business, informational newsletters can be used to touch base with your existing clients on a regular basis, especially around peak vacation periods.

Hotsheets are another type of newsletter favored by travel professionals. The equivalent of a newspaper "extra" edition, hotsheets are usually used to provide "breaking news" about tour operator and airline specials, in-house specials (including gimmicks like offering a free flight bag with a paid booking), and other time-sensitive information. While you can certainly create a printed hotsheet that can be mailed or faxed, people are now so used to booking trips at the last minute through online consolidators like Expedia.com and Hotwire.com that e-mailed hotsheets often work best.

Feature Articles
Even if you're new to the travel industry, the mere fact that you own a travel services business, no matter how freshly minted it may be, automatically makes you an authority in the eyes of anyone who doesn't own a travel services business. So capitalize on the perception that you're in the know by publishing feature articles.

Even if you've never been published in any way, shape or form before-not even a letter to Santa in the local newspaper-it's not impossible to get published, especially in local publications. Editors love getting material that's suited for their lifestyle sections, especially when it comes in over the transom (journalism parlance for "unsolicited"), it's free (because it's promotional in nature), and it covers a hot topic that everyone is talking about. You don't even have to worry excessively about grammar and punctuation-copy editors will fix up the small boo-boos, slap a headline on your story, and splash it across the lifestyle section-or if you're lucky, the travel section. Of course, do not attempt this at home if you don't have at least rudimentary English skills. A story that's full of usage and grammatical errors will quickly wing its way to Shredder Heaven.

As with newsletters, informational articles, how-tos and checklists are always popular with both newspaper and magazine editors. Make your submission stand out by giving it a sexy headline, like "Naughty Valentine's Day destinations" (for a honeymoon cruise) or "Take a flying leap into the Grand Canyon" (for a southwest parasailing tour) to capture editors' attention. Putting a negative spin on a headline can also be provocative, as in "The top 10 most dangerous cities to visit."

Public Speaking
Public speaking can help you quickly make a name for yourself as a travel expert-and if you leave enough business cards at the registration table or on the podium, guess who they'll call when they need to book a trip or buy airline tickets? So look for organizations whose members fit the demographics of the customers you're seeking and offer your services as a speaker for their membership meetings. As with feature articles, you may receive nothing or a small honorarium in return for your time. But when the calls start coming in later, you'll find the public appearances were well worth the time.

Some of the membership groups that are always looking for speakers include the chamber of commerce, the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club and Soroptimist International. You might also check to see whether there's a startup entrepreneur group, as Michael Chu and Ying Liu of ChinaStar101.com did, and offer to speak about your own startup experience. Local libraries are also great places to speak on destination topics, as are groups like garden clubs, hospital auxiliary groups and any other organization whose members mirror your target market. Just be sure to slant your talk to the audience. For instance, if the membership of the local chamber of commerce is largely composed of men who are aged 60 and up, don't give a talk about family-friendly vacation spots.

How to Start a Travel Service

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