Jane Larson, featured as Certified Agent of the month by Maison de la France

Name – Jane Larson, CTA (Manager, Performance Tour Division)

Company – Witte Travel & Tours (Grand Rapids, Michigan)

What is the primary focus of your business?
Our company has both a Vacation & Group Tour Department. I work in the Group Tour Department. The primary focus of our company is custom designed special interest tours: performance tours (choirs and other music groups), art, religious heritage, and French language. France continues to be one of our top destinations. (I am currently working on the final touches for three groups leaving for France in the next few weeks—two choirs, one from California & one from Canada and a heritage tour for three Catholic Universities).

When did you start the certification program?
I started the Travel Institute’s French Destination Specialist program in spring of 2004 and received the Travel Institute DS France certificate in July 2004. It seemed to take awhile before there was a fam trip that worked out for my schedule. I became a France Certified Agent after participating the Midi-Pyrenées Fam Trip from September 6 – 13, 2008. I think the Maison de la France/FGTO Certified Agent program sets the “gold standard” for European Government Tourist Board specialist/certification programs. I like the combination of taking the course and test and then participation in a fam trip to one region of France. Meeting with people from the local and regional tourist boards plus traveling with other French specialists helped to generate a lot of brainstorming on how we can all help to promote travel to France.

Where and when did you participate in the Fam trip and how have you applied the new information and skills you’ve learned from getting certified?
Upon returning from the September 2008 fam, I was immediately able to use some of my new contacts in the Midi-Pyrenées in the planning for a very specialized tour to this region of France. My client from Chicago (who is French) was thrilled with my suggestions for visits to some “out of the way” places for her tour. As far as other training, for those of us who sell France as a destination, I know many of us would love to have the opportunity for a “French language only” fam for agents who have at least a working knowledge of French. In addition to the focus on particular regions of France, you might consider more emphasis on niche markets (art & architecture, food & wine, religious heritage/pilgrimage, etc.).

How has your certification affected you business?
The France Certified Agent training has definitely had a positive affect on my business. Shortly after returning from the September fam trip (and in part because of being on the Board of our Alliance Française de Grand Rapids), I was interviewed by our local travel editor. Her column is featured in six other Booth papers in Michigan so this was wonderful exposure. With clients from all over the country, having this Certification helps to validate their decision to work with me for their specialized tours to France. (I am currently working on specialized 2010 tours to France for clients from Mississippi, Texas and Illinois).

I have so many wonderful memories and anecdotes from many years of traveling to France (both with and without groups) I could write a book. Here is the one that is probably the most unique:

My husband and I brought a group to Paris over the 1988/1989 New Year’s holiday to celebrate the beginning of the festivities for the French Bicentennial. For the New Year’s Eve party, we had barely sat down with our group when the waiter who was directly behind me, was bumped and spilled an entire tray of kir royal down my pale pink satin dress. After a few moments of shock, I calmly walked to the ladies room and then burst into tears. The French coat check girl came in and said (of course in French): “Don’t cry, don’t cry. Would you like another dress?” Before I could respond, she came back with a strapless blue dress with sparkles all over it. Feeling a bit like Cinderella, I put the dress on and it fit perfectly (to both or our amazement). She gave me a huge smile and said, “Ce sera votre année de bonne chance!” (This will be your year of good luck). She was certainly right. Before the end of 1989, thanks to my brother, I gained a wonderful French sister-in-law and on a British Airways sponsored fam trip to Monaco and Nice, I met Mr. Henk Witte who I now work for.