SBJ/June 22 - 28, 1998/No Topic Name

A travel agency promises: Have coaches, will travel

Ken DeMatteo has agreed to plan a fishing trip to New Zealand, an out-of-the-ordinary excursion for his travel agency, which typically books golf tours through Scotland and basketball trips to Italy and Spain.

The tours feature prominent college coaches who host and help promote the trips, luring wealthy alumni and boosters who pay premium prices — upward of $4,000 a person — to play golf or tour cities with the coach or, in the case of the basketball trips, to see their schools play overseas.

Unfortunately for DeMatteo, Tom Osborne doesn't want to play golf in Scotland. He wants to go fishing. And so on this summer morning, DeMatteo is worried. How big a boat should he book? How many of the Cornhusker faithful will want to fish with the larger-than-life, recently retired coach? How many will take the trip but skip the fishing?

"A golf trip would've been easier, there's no question about that,'' said DeMatteo, president of Olney, Md.-based Sports Travel International. "But fishing is what he wanted to do. I'm not wild about it. I could end up with a big boat with two people on it and all the rest out sightseeing. But I'm not going to say no. If this is what he wants to do, I'll make it work."

It's that philosophy that is at the core of a pitch that has gotten DeMatteo's agency a flood of business. He flies into a college town, meets with the football or basketball coach, and makes him an offer that is difficult to refuse. He can go wherever he wants, to do whatever he wants, and DeMatteo will pay for it.

The only catch: DeMatteo gets to sell accompanying tour packages to the coach's friends, supporters and fans. For every 10 he sells, the coach gets to bring one guest of his own choosing.

DeMatteo recently signed Iowa coach Hayden Fry to lead a golf trip in Ireland next year. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr and former Michigan boss Bo Schembechler will do one to Scotland in May. Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum will take a roving band of Aggies to Italy. DeMatteo expects to have three or four more lined up by the end of the summer.

Those, along with at least five basketball tours that STI is organizing for college teams and their fans, will generate $2 million in sales this year, DeMatteo said. Though he wouldn't discuss profitability, the tours typically produce a larger profit margin than trips that don't include a coach or celebrity because travelers are willing to pay more for the same trip if schmooze time with their favorite coach is part of the package.

DeMatteo organized his first sports trip in 1981 with then Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps. However, most of the firm's growth in the sports segment has come in the last two years as word has spread throughout the coaching community, he said.

The key to organizing a successful trip, according to DeMatteo, is choosing the right coach. He must be visible. And popular. And at a school with deep-pocketed fans.

And, of course, secure.

"I do a lot of research before I approach someone,'' DeMatteo said. "The last thing I want is to invite the fans to travel with a coach who just lost seven games."

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