“Never forget this is a sales business,” says Mark Stone, the ultimate salesman. He started his travel business selling bus tours to Atlantic City, kept it fresh by attending local networking events every night of the week — and ended up running a $15-million-a-year cruise powerhouse. After 48 years in business, he sails free as a cruise host every couple of months, and still sells about half a million dollars’ worth of cruises a year.
In all, being a travel agent has been a dream career, Stone says. But it’s not easy.
“I know a lot of people who are making $100,000 a year in this business, but you have to work at it,” he says. “Put in your 60 hours a week, and you will do it.”
For Stone, it all started with planning his honeymoon in 1972. A teacher in Brooklyn at the time, he walked into Rona Travel, started chatting with the owners — and soon had a new part-time job. His first booking was for his Grandma Goldie, two weeks on the Nordic Prince, $820 including air, he still recalls.
Soon Stone moved to Empress Travel in Rego Park, Queens, across from Alexander’s department store — where he decided the future was in having a niche, and the niche was cruising. Working out of his garage on Avenue I, he soon was one of the top producers in all of Brooklyn.
In addition to his grandma and his friends and neighbors, Stone was always hustling for new customers. His best brainstorm, he says, was to arrange bus tours to the Atlantic City casinos, each with an escort whose job was to fill them and ride along. By the end of the first year, he was running five buses a day; each bus had 49 seats, and each seat got a flyer advertising his cruise business.
“That’s what put me over the top,” he says.
After 15 years, Stone sold his business, moved to Florida and started all over again, working as a general manager for Anchors Away Cruises, managing 15 agents. Soon, he was running full-page ads in Florida and Charlotte with co-op advertising from cruise and tour companies, selling $15 million a year. When the owners sold, he started TourLink with his son, running 19 tour buses to Biloxi, Branson, Myrtle Beach, and Key West.
Semi-retired now, Stone is an independent contractor at Cruise & Tours Unlimited, with two sub-agents; he will sell about a half-million dollars’ worth of cruises this year alone. He sails six or seven cruises a year as an escort for Distinctive Voyages; his next will be aboard the Queen Mary 2, sailing 19 days to Germany, England and France. “I host a cocktail party and a shore excursion, sometimes I put one together, take people with me, do an ice cream social,” he says.
Between now and May, he will host six cruises for Distinctive Voyages and three of his own groups; he will be at sea 18 days in September, in Puerto Vallarta for a week, then on the MSC Meraviglia, the Konigsdam for Christmas, Europe in January, Cunard in the Mediterranean in May, the Queen Mary in the Baltics in July, and Celebrity in the Caribbean for Thanksgiving.
“I come off a little aggressive sometimes; I’m a big guy with a Brooklyn accent,” Stone acknowledges. “But really, I am just a guy who loves his work.”
Pick a niche, and network
When he’s not sailing or selling, Stone mentors other travel agents throughout the country. His advice for building a business? “Pick a niche. And then make sure people know you. For me, the best way was networking groups, like the Chamber of Commerce; once you get up and make a presentation, people realize you are the man who really know cruises or safaris. That’s how you start to get the business.”
Stone used to go to four or five groups a week around the Tampa Bay area, so soon everyone knew him; he still gets calls from his contacts there. At the age of 70, he has cut back to just one, RGA (Revenue Generating Activity). They have about 30 chapters around Tampa Bay, so his annual fee goes a long way.
Then, “take all your training and flaunt it to your customers,” Stone says. “People like to travel with someone who knows what he is doing — my office is like a museum.” On the walls are certificates from NCL, Celebrity, RIU Hotels, Marriott, Cunard, Princess, Holland America, Disney, RCCL, Uniworld, Israel, Mexico, Vancouver, his original CLIA certificate from 1980 (signed by Bill Armstrong); and his favorite, “me and two show girls from the very first RCCL cruise to Europe in 1993.”
In the end, though, in the early days in the 1970s and still today, “you have to understand this is a sales job — and you really have to know how to sell,” he says. “You have to not hesitate to say the five most important words: ‘Is that cash or credit card?’ We’re not here to just give out information; you have to be able to ask for the money.”
If a client calls and then does not follow up, call them and ask if they would like to come back and finalize the business, he suggests. If they hesitate, ask what you can do to make it happen and throw in a little something extra. “If I have a $500 commission and it costs me a bottle of wine, so be it,” he said.
The one thing he regrets in his own business was not following up with clients post-trip, he says now. “I spent so much time before the trip with them that I didn’t feel like I had to, but I regret that now. The CRM makes it so easy, but I just haven’t been using it much. If I was a young guy, though, I would.”
Right now, though, our interview is over (unless, of course, you are interested in that MSC cruise or Puerto Vallarta trip he has coming up? — it would be so much fun to meet you in person, he says). But for now, he has to run. He’s packing his bags for New York, headed onto the Queen Mary 2.