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CONSUMER REPORT

Agent Goal Is to Save You Time

August 27, 1989|JACK ADLER | Adler is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Some American companies serve as general sales agents (GSA) for overseas outfits, but their specific roles and responsibilities aren't always understood by the consumer.

Are you paying the same amount to a general sales agent that you would otherwise pay? If there is a problem, who is responsible--the GSA or the company it represents in the United States?

General sales agents are used when an overseas company wants to serve the U.S. market but doesn't want to maintain its own office.

A general sales agent can be a retail travel agency, a tour operator, a hotel representation firm or a marketing consultant or a combination of several.

Common Misconception

"One misconception that some travelers have is a GSA is somehow also a tourist office of sorts," Jean Stark of Scots-American Travel Advisors said.

Her company is a marketing representation firm in Harrington, N.J. (toll-free (800) 247-7268), that sells the Scottish Highlands and Islands Travelpass, in addition to representing other Scottish travel concerns such as hotels and car-rental firms.

"Some people expect answers to all the questions they ask about Scotland, not just the companies we represent," Stark said. "They don't understand that we're a private company and not a government agency."

One travel product recently being marketed in the United States by a general sales agent is the Spain-Rail pass of Renfe, the Spanish National Railroads. Until now, this pass could only be bought in Spain.

"We sell the pass direct to consumers and through travel agents," said Joyce Fredo, a spokeswoman for Donna Brunstad Associates of Westport, Conn. (telephone (800) 992-3976), which functions as a marketing/advertising agency.

"There's no difference in price in what we sell the Spanish rail pass for than what it would cost in Spain, other than the fluctuation in the value of the dollar to Spanish currency. If the dollar is going down, you're certainly better off prepaying in the United States."

Major Advantage

The major advantage is convenience.

"If you want to buy the pass through us, it can be done by phone and mail, and you don't have to go in person to the rail station in Spain and perhaps wait in line," Fredo said. "You save time, which you can use for other purposes, like sightseeing."

What about complaints?

"If rail-pass purchasers have problems, they can come back to us," Fredo said. "We're authorized to take care of complaints and refund money if we think it justified. We use our judgment. We don't say, 'Go talk to the Spanish rail system.' "

Similar information came from Prem Colhly, vice president of Hari-World Travels (telephone toll-free (800) 446-4274), a New York City firm that works as both a travel agency and tour operator, with exclusive rights to sell the Indrail Pass of Indian Railways in North America.

"You save time and effort by buying the pass in the United States," Colhly said, "and there's no difference in price, if you bought the pass in India."

Refunds and Complaints

Oceanic Cruises, a new Japan-based cruise line offering sailings around the Far East, is using the SMI Group in San Francisco (telephone toll-free (800) 545-5778) as its GSA.

"People deal with us just like we're the cruise line," Steve Langley of SMI said. "We can take care of complaints and refunds without getting authorization from Japan."

Buying a pass in the United States can also lead to extra perks.

"If a consumer buys the Scottish Highlands and Islands Travelpass from us, we also provide them with a complimentary Scotpass Discount Card," Stark said.

"It gives discounts of 10% to 50% off at sightseeing attractions, stores and restaurants, and about 10% at some hotels. In Scotland, travelers would have to first write for this card, which makes it a difficult proposition for most people."

Booking the Rooms

If the general sales agent represents hotels, it may also be able to secure rooms that you might otherwise not be able to get. This depends upon the GSA inventory.

"Mail can be hopeless sometimes in trying to book a room, and it might take several international phone calls to set things up," Stark said.

"And you would have to pay a deposit, with the rate figured at the time the check is converted, so you might find that you owe more money when you arrive, if the dollar has gone down. Booking through us means a guaranteed rate."

"Generally, the general service agent is responsible for payments made to it on behalf of the company it's representing," said Albert Schmid, president of Far West Travel Co. in Marina del Rey, which has served as a GSA for several Swiss travel concerns.

"Refunds can be made after verification of claims. You can also possibly get a refund for unused services, also after verification."

Straighten It Out

Moreover, GSAs can be useful in resolving and preventing complaints.

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