When Marsha Calig lost her husband, business partner and travel companion to cancer three months ago, she decided she could either sit around and grieve, or do something to start the healing process.

So was born People Without Partners, a new division at Calig World Travel & Cruises designed for single, divorced and widowed travelers seeking comfort in numbers.

Calig, the owner of the travel agency, has been using her own personal experiences to fashion her business since she and her late husband, Milton, founded the company in 1983. Almost invariably, her instincts have made good business sense.

Woodland Hills-based Calig World Travel has grown from a tiny travel agency into a business with a network of 350 agents worldwide. In 1999, Calig's revenues rose 11 percent to $10 million, landing the company on the No. 13 spot on the Business Journal's list of the top 15 women-owned businesses in the San Fernando Valley. And this year, Calig is projecting $12 million in revenues, thanks to its strategy of aggressively marketing to distinct groups like singles in the leisure travel category.

"I will not sit still and let the world pass me by," Calig said.

The entrepreneurial bug

Calig was a dental hygienist when she got the notion to start a business that would be "fun." She persuaded her husband, who by then was semi-retired from a number of entrepreneurial importing and distribution ventures, to start up a business producing seminars oriented to small-business owners.

Calig, who would collect the seminar fees at the door, one day decided to sit in on a session about how to start up a travel agency, and the bug bit. After taking the required coursework to get a license, Calig went to work for a travel agency. Two years later, she and her husband opened their own shop, and several years after that, they added a school component a physical classroom and a correspondence course for training travel agents.

At first, the sale of airline tickets made up a significant portion of the fledgling agency's revenues. But in 1995, airlines cut their 10 percent commissions to travel agencies down to 5 percent, which devastated a number of operators.

"Since the airlines cut commissions, it has been a challenging environment for travel agencies," said Dina Long, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. "It wiped out a good portion of their revenues."

ASTA does not keep statistics on the number of travel agencies in operation, but Long said the organization's own membership has seen a decline domestically (international memberships have increased), due to mergers and consolidations in the industry.

Calig World Travel, however, was well positioned to withstand the changes. By the late 1980s, the owners had seen the writing on the wall and began shifting their business away from airline ticket sales.

"We knew this was going to happen," said Calig. "The airlines wanted to find a way of bypassing the travel agent, and they did. We decided to go heavily into cruises and tours."

By focusing on cruises, Calig Travel could reap higher commissions than those the airlines were willing to pay. At the same time, the company instituted a 5 percent service charge for those airline flights it did book, to make up for the lost revenue from commissions.Customers have been willing to pay the fee to avoid the hassle of booking the flights themselves.

Focus on 'opportunistic tours'

Today, 80 percent of the company's business comes from cruises and tours to such locales as the Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean, Alaska and Russia, as well as weekend getaways to local places like the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad and the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.

The agency has also worked to establish a point of distinction by planning "opportunistic tours" that focus on special interests. As the strength of the U.S. dollar in Italy started to grow, for example, Calig decided to run a "Shop 'Til You Drop" tour to Milan, Florence and Rome this fall for travelers who want to scour Italy for bargains. Also in the fall, Calig has scheduled a "Great Chefs of France" tour for those who want to eat and drink their way through that country.

"There are so many great ways of seeing the world," Calig said. "It's no more just sitting on the beach and getting a suntan, and this is where your travel agent can come into play."

With the emergence of the Internet as a travel planning alternative, Calig Travel has set up a Web site as well, but the company expects the site to play only a small role in its business.

"We did the Web site to get our name out," Calig said. "It's brought in some customers, but I think our marketing brings in more."

Meanwhile, Calig said competition from Internet travel sites has not affected the agency's business, primarily because of Calig's lack of exposure to airline tickets. When a tour or cruise does involve airline travel, the agency is also able to book it from wholesalers who can provide prices at or below those found on the Internet.

Many of the packages that Calig Travel offers would take hours to research over the Internet, and the company is also able to offer travelers extra features, like groups geared to people with similar interests. There are travel cruises specifically for grandparents and their grandchildren, not to mention the most recent venture, People Without Partners.

"Let's face it, the world is built on two, not one," Calig said. "People want companionship. They want people in the same boat, and singles want to travel with people who are not couples."

So far, 450 people responded to a direct-mail ad announcing the formation of People Without Partners, and 12 customers have already signed up for the first event, a weekend getaway to the Four Seasons in Carlsbad.

Calig hopes to refine the offerings for People Without Partners as she learns more about the target group. Once it gets established, though, Calig believes the niche will account for about 20 percent of the agency's business.

"It may take a good year before we really find the right niche," she said. "But I know there's a need because the response seems phenomenal."

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