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"Creating a Voice, Not Just an Echo" for 78 Years
By Bonnie Walling
Pennsylvania agency's decision to specialize and use the Web garners a Forbes Enterprise Award
Niche marketing, a sense of enthusiasm, a personal touch and savvy knowledge of the cyber world are the keys to success in today's travel industry, according to Judith Heydt and Maria Thomas, co-owners of Judy and Maria's Travel of Coatesville, PA, which was recently honored with a 2006 Forbes Enterprise Award in the travel and tourism category.
The agency was chosen from thousands of submissions from across the country by a committee chaired by New York Times and Business Week senior editor Judith Dobrynski. "The ceremony was in New York City, and it was just a wonderful experience," Thomas said.
Their road to the award began with the founding of their brick-and-mortar agency 15 years ago. At first, their approach was more conventional. "We sold everything," Thomas said. "Cruises, tours, you name it. But after 9/11, we decided to change our approach."
Heydt and Thomas decided to pick a single company to sell, and settled on Apple Vacations. They also narrowed their focus to "destinations where people want to go that are close by," Thomas said, and began selling exclusively packages to Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
The result has paid off in $3 million in annual sales, of which, Thomas says, "Ninety-nine percent comes from our Web site."
Heydt said that she built the Web site up herself knowing absolutely nothing about the Internet.
"I realized that in the future, it was going to be a cyber world," she said. "I went to Barnes and Noble and got a book about how to build a Web site."
From there, she said, it was "learning, learning, learning through experience." When she got the hang of keywords, she began making sure that their agency stayed near the top of Google and Yahoo. "I change the keywords all the time to keep up with the search engines," she said.
Despite their cyber presence, Heydt and Thomas said the true secret to their success is a personal touch. "We have an upscale clientele that wants quality, personal service and personal attention," Thomas said.
Destination Fam Trips
That attention extends to their suppliers. Heydt and Thomas make regular trips to the destinations that they sell to visit resort properties and network with the staff. "We usually visit 15 to 20 hotels. Sometimes, we just stop in and say hello," Thomas said.
This has helped them to know the properties intimately, so they can pass the knowledge on to their clients. It also benefits them in other ways. "The people at the resorts know us, so that when our clients go there, they know to take good care of them," Thomas said.
These trips also are used to enhance their Web site -- Thomas said she personally takes photos of all aspects of the resorts.
"I'm up early in the morning to get photos at sunrise and also out to get pictures at sunset. I even take pictures of the meals that I'm served. People know looking at the pictures that they're the real deal, they're not file photos -- they show that we know these resorts."
Their travels have resulted in some unique experiences. "We were in Cancun at the time of Hurricane Wilma," Thomas said, noting that they were evacuated to the Riviera Maya.
Heydt noted that the duo also met with a former Prime Minister of Spain who is now a hotel operator.
Thomas said that suppliers and clients alike are welcome to come into their office. "Even though its a cyber world, you still need people to talk to," she said.
She noted that she's in the office at 7 a.m., "and I get calls from people surprised that we're open at that hour."
The true secret to success, she said, is to enjoy what you do. "People can tell if you feel it in your heart," she said. "Be yourself, be honest and enjoy yourself."
The Web site for Judy and Maria's Travel is at www.judyandmariastravel.com