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Healthy Traveler

Fitness, Veggies and Special Agents

October 25, 1998|KATHLEEN DOHENY

When a client calls travel agent Stephen Abelsohn and says he wants to eat vegetarian fare on his vacation, chances are he is not a dietary dabbler but a dyed-in-the-wool non-carnivore who wants to be sure of getting tasty, healthful alternatives to meat.

Likewise, when a client calls travel agent Nancy Zebrick, known for booking spa vacations, she probably is not looking for the standard massage-and-pamper package but has specific health needs in mind. A recent customer, for instance, had diabetes and was obese. She was looking for a medically supervised spa program that could help her trim down safely.

Abelsohn and Zebrick represent an uncommon new breed of travel agent--those who keep abreast of health and fitness trends and book health-oriented travel and tours.

Travel agents with this specialty are still much in the minority, said Steve Loucks, a spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Agents, who estimated that only a few of the 200,000 U.S. travel agents specialize in the niche. "But it is part of a larger trend toward serving niche travel markets," he added, which now include travel for those with disabilities, senior travel and family travel.

Agents who focus on health-oriented trips offer advantages over generalists, according to Abelsohn, Zebrick and others. For one thing, most "walk the talk," that is, they practice what they book others into--exercise, sensible eating and relaxation techniques to de-stress--and so understand how important it is to go the extra mile to find what their clients want.

Abelsohn, who runs his business, Adventure Health Travel, tel. (800) 443-9216, Internet, from Ashland, Ore., said he has been a vegetarian for more than 20 years. For an India tour he will lead in December, Abelsohn will hire an Indian vegetarian chef to accompany the group for the entire two-week trip. When a couple recently booked a trip to Jamaica and wanted to eat a totally vegetarian diet while away, Abelsohn tracked down the chef at the destination resort to see what he would be serving. The chef gladly told him: "I'll cook with no meat, fish, egg or dairy."

Abelsohn, who worked for a time at a spa, also organizes health-oriented family vacations, with snorkeling trips one of his favorites. A five- to seven-night package in the British Virgin Islands, for instance, includes three days of snorkeling.

Zebrick is a registered dietitian who specializes in health-oriented trips and tours through her Cherry Hill, N.J., agency, All Destinations Travel, tel. (800) 755-1718, Internet, which also books other types of trips. She says she's been to 51 spas in the U.S. and abroad to get a feel for the kind of programs and ambience they offer.

Zebrick, who keeps her R.D. license current, says she thinks of her clients more as consumers in need of nutritional and other health guidance than simply as travelers--and often follows up with them after a trip. Her motto: "You should come back from vacation feeling better, not with an extra 10 pounds."

Verna Collins runs Vegetarian Journeys, based in Sarasota, Fla., tel. (888) 559-3031, Internet She was a general travel agent for many years before switching solely to health-oriented trips and tours. "I try to offer smoke-free and alcohol-free environments with vegetarian foods for people looking to travel with like-minded people," she says.

Her goal often boils down to helping travelers experience destinations in an unrushed environment. During an upcoming walking tour to Costa Rica, for example, daily mileage will be low, probably six or less. And she is planning to include yoga lessons by the beach.

Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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