March 14, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

There has been much turmoil in the travel industry in the last few years, but one constant remains, said Peggy Weishaar.

While some people are turning to the Internet or directly to the airlines in hopes of landing cheaper deals, Weishaar runs a business that still offers great personal service, takes after-hour phone calls and can go to bat for our clients if there is any problem.

She purchased Alegre Travel May 1, 2000, and operated the business out of an Adams Avenue location across from City Hall.

Recently she purchased Blue Moon Travel, formerly Carefree Travel, and combined the operations, moving to the Carefree location at 101 Depot a few days ago.

Weishaar said she has surrounded herself with a competent, well-trained staff which works cooperatively. They work on salary, not commission, so they have no qualms about seeking each others help if one has more expertise in a particular area that might be required by a client. That arrangement also allows the employees to do job-sharing.

She said the agents were the secret to her success.

There is no substitute for experience. Our versatile agents have 50 years of combined travel experience, a wealth of information, a good knowledge of their product, a good relationship with their vendors and a good relationship with their clients.

Im amazed at how hard our agents work for each of their clients. Our agents enjoy working as a team to find the best package deal for all our clients. Were like a travel library.

Finding she needs to devote more time to the business, including being in the office more, Weishaar has resigned from teaching health and physical education and coaching volleyball at Elgin High School.

While enjoyable, coaching and teaching was a great emotional drain. I was exhausted at the end of the day, she said.

I have well-trained agents, and their job is to sell travel. My job is to worry about the rest of the business.

That includes bookkeeping, marketing and other business decisions.

Her philosophy has resulted in a lot of satisfied customers, she said, because there is a lot of repeat business. People dont mind driving long distances to get the personalized service. One client drove here from Idaho and spent a whole day here. He trusted us to get the best deal for him. He valued his time, but it evidently was worthwhile for him to drive to La Grande.

Weishaar said, Agencies in other, more populous areas can specialize in one type of service. As one of the main travel agencies in Eastern Oregon, we feel obligated to offer as many services as we can.

This includes offering airline tickets, cruises, group events or other tours, and honeymoon packages. Thirty percent of the agencys clients go for a package deal, and thats what the company does best, Weishaar said.

We can put the whole package together cheaper than if the client got the services separately. Well do the air fare, land transportation, hotel, tour, whatever the customer wants, she said.

In this computerized age, all travel agencies have access to all airlines and other services, so the clients cost isnt going to be that much more or less at any particular travel agency, she said.

The difference in cost to the client may be $10 to $15, the difference being in the different airline reporting systems the travel agency uses. We get lots of faxes every day detailing all the various packages the wholesalers offer, and we just try to give the customer the best deal we can. A lot depends on if they want a frills package or one with no frills.

The agency provides service to corporate or business clients. There is very little international travel booked with the agency, Weishaar said.

The main thing that makes her business go, she reiterated, is people love personal attention and the friendliness of our agents.

Agents are Stacy Case, Sue Kreutz, Merry Montgomery, Cindy Schaures, Verna Schwendemann, Rachel Sorenson, Toiresa (Kym) Troyer, Darla VanLeuven, and Karin Tsiatsos. Sandy Crawford and Amy Hampton are receptionists.

The question remains: with all the changes in the industry, why would a school teacher decide to buy into it?

Im well aware of the changes continually facing the industry. But this offers me a challenge in an exciting new adventure, Weishaar said. I embrace the challenge.

She said travel agency sales increased 13 percent last year, but only 64 percent of the agencies made a profit due, in part, to airlines continuing to reduce the commissions they pay to agencies. In 1995, the commission caps began, and in 1998 and 1999, the commission cuts were drastic, Weishaar said.

Travel agencies are responsible for 83 percent of airline sales, yet the airlines continually are cutting agency commissions.

She said travel agents profits have been cut by 50 percent over recent years.

The Internet has also had an effect on business. But people who value their own time know their travel agent will save them time and money, Weishaar said. They must trust that their agent will work through every step of the process to find them the best price available to fit their needs. And they know there is a person to contact if they have to make changes.