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By John Ashenhurst, Sounding Line - Sales and Marketing, June 2003

Some agents want to provide value and make money through their Web sites.

International Insurance Group has a solution: self-service auto, homeowners, and other insurance for Americans traveling to Mexico.

Three years ago, Jim Labelle, now president of International Insurance Group, Inc. in Flagstaff, AZ, had an idea: why not use the Internet to provide insurance to Americans crossing the border to travel in or live for a while in Mexico. U.S. auto insurance policies don't work in Mexico (though they do in Canada). Apparently to protect its domestic insurance business, the Mexican government only recognizes policies written by Mexican companies.

According to Labelle, about 15 million unique vehicles cross the Mexican border annually and they all need insurance. In the past, most American travelers stopped near the border to buy insurance from a local agent. But that was inconvenient, not always reliable, and not always available. Labelle decided to offer online insurance to Americans traveling south and Mexicans traveling north. He would offer it directly through his agency Web site, but knew that ultimately he would be much more successful if he could sign up hundreds of other agents to sell his coverage as well.

Setting things up to sell direct

In 2000, Labelle incorporated International Insurance Group, contracted with several Mexican insurance companies, and developed the technical infrastructure needed to sell and service his Mexico travel insurance business. His initiative — Web-supported specialty lines sales and service through the agency distribution system — has become so successful that he now offers his technology to other agents and MGA/Us that have specialty products. Furthermore, he is considering expanding into other lines in the U.S. Labelle already offers global travel-related insurance, including medical evacuation coverage, through his www.familyevac.com site.

To get an idea of how Labelle sells direct through the Web, take a look at his www.mexpro.com site. Its primary focus is for U.S. travel to Mexico, but it also provides links for from-Mexico into the U.S. coverage and international health and medical coverage. P&C coverage offered includes auto, RV, watercraft, homeowners, and commercial lines.

Mexpro provides instant quotations for auto insurance for GE Seguros, ACE Seguros, and GNP policies — as well as access to Standard & Poor's for ratings on these companies. The quote form is straightforward. It has a few items not part of typical U.S. auto quote forms, but also leaves a good bit out — especially relating to detailed information about the drivers.

Service and support

To get an idea of what Labelle's service looks like presented as part of another site, take a look at www.aaaaz.com, follow the Mexico insurance links or go directly to mexicoinsuranceonline. International Insurance Group's Web software can be tailored to the look and feel of agency sites, so that though the prospect is actually being linked from the agency to the IIG site, the prospect doesn't know the difference. And when agents don't want to include the link in their sites (or don't have one), but want to sell and service their Mexico travel customers directly, they can go to the mexicoinsuranceonline.com site to do quotes, generate policies and certificates, and even do endorsements.

When consumers buy directly (e.g., through an agency site) they pay by credit card. IIG pays the commission reports activity to the agent. When the agent handles the transaction instead of the consumer, agency bill as well as direct bill payment is supported.

Labelle believes that the software he has developed and uses to support his Mexico and international insurance offerings (directly and through agents) could be valuable to other agents who want a Web channel for their specialty coverages so he now offers the technology for use and customization through his Internet Software Designs operation.

Creative Internet solution

From my point of view, Labelle's effort provides an excellent example of the creative ways the Internet can be brought to bear on under or poorly served markets while at the same time providing benefits to the existing agency distribution system. While a good bit of his business comes from border states like Texas, Arizona, and California, significant volume comes from brokers in Canada who serve clientele that winter in Mexico.

Agents would do well to look into what Labelle has to offer to make their sites more valuable to their customers and themselves. It's a great idea and well-executed. And as George Howington, president of Internet Software Designs, their software company, pointed out during my interview, ISD can help "other carriers and MGAs to distribute their core products using this technology."

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