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The Right StuffMay 1, 2008 By: Susan Young Home-Based Travel Agent
Four home-based agents epitomize success
Some might believe that new home-based agents really aren't equipped to sell world cruises. Just don't tell that to Cary Haskin, the owner of Cary on Travel, a new home-based agency affiliated with Cruise Specialists (a Virtuoso member) and Luxury Travel Network in the San Francisco Bay area.
With less than one year in the travel business, Haskin has sold a $120,000 full-world cruise on Crystal Cruises, plus an accompanying hefty travel insurance premium and more than $12,000 in private excursions.
The U.S. economy is slumping, but that doom-and-gloom talk doesn't faze Jill Skrzynski, a SeaMaster Cruises franchise owner in Rochester Hills, MI. A prolific networker, Skrzynski already has 2.3 times more sales on the books this year than she did this past year.
And despite difficult times in the banking industry, Kaye Reece, the owner of Sun-Daze Travel, in Hixson, TN, has basically doubled her business year-over-year. How? She's cultivated affinity travel business with a major bank, along with selling cruises and destination weddings.
Finally, with terrorism fears abroad, some agents might think that American companies won't book overseas meetings. That statement may provide a good chuckle for Louise Gross, a home-based Ensemble Travel consultant for Wylly's Travel in Coral Gables, FL. About 65 percent of her business is leisure, but 35 percent is meeting planning—the bulk of it at hotels in such foreign destinations as Delhi, Dubai and Grand Cayman.
So while market conditions certainly aren't perfect for selling this year, these four agents are not only surviving but thriving. So what sets them apart from the crowd? Certainly top-notch product knowledge, good training and the agents' use of consortia/affiliate tools and resources head the list. Beyond that, though, we identified 10 attributes these folks have:
1. You Gotta Believe! A strong belief in your own self-worth is paramount. A former advertising agency executive, but a travel industry novice, Haskin never viewed selling a full-world cruise as a job reserved for more experienced agents. "On my website, I emphasized world cruises and [then] I found out that selling a world cruise as an agent who's been in business for less than a year is almost unheard of," Haskin acknowledges.
That first world cruise client has subsequently booked a 49-night, Crystal "Grand Americas" sailing at $22,000 per person, exclusive of add-ons. Two more world cruise bookings are in the hopper.
If you lack confidence, take heart from Reece, who dove into selling but feared public speaking. "I credit the business for helping me with my self-esteem," she says. "Now I stand in front of perfect strangers and talk about something I love talking about. It has become much easier."
2. Zap "No" From Your Vocabulary. If your first thought is "no" when the client proposes something totally outrageous, stop cold. "You never say 'no,'" stresses Skrzynski. "You say 'yes'. Then you go look on the Internet, call your contacts ... and there are answers."
Agents who say "I don't or can't do that," based on the cost in time or money to themselves simply fail to grasp the long-term impact. Haskin, an ACC and affiliate of Carlson through their Partners in Travel Network, believes "yes" equates to "investment in a satisfied client."
3. Specialize and Drill Down. With gross sales of $350,000 his first year as a home-based agent, Haskin specializes in group cruises and luxury cruises. "The reality is it takes just as much work to book a $600 cruise on Carnival or Norwegian as it does to book a $6,000 cruise on Regent, Crystal, Silversea or Seabourn," he says.
Group-wise, he's taken 28 people from his condo association on a Celebrity cruise through the Panama Canal. He's also booked, or is working on, cruises for several family reunions, a psychologists' association, a ski club and a second cruise for the condo group.
In addition, some cruise sellers also sell all-inclusives and resorts. Skrzynski, for example, books such stays in Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera, Las Vegas and the Caribbean. She recommends "finding reliable partners," citing Apple Vacations as one she uses. One of Reece's favorite destination-wedding properties is Couples Swept Away in Negril, Jamaica.
4. Network on an Hourly Basis. Every agent knows it's important to network. But how often do you network? A couple of times a month? Once a week? Hint: Our top producers view every hour of every day as a networking opportunity.
"I network constantly," Skrzynski says, focusing not just on one big event, but small everyday encounters that reap loads of contacts. Networking—and having a fluid, up-to-date contact list—is part of everything she does. "Maybe I'll get someone to book the first time, and then if I do a good job, I get the repeat business."
5. Bundle and Develop. Think incremental revenue. Bundle tours, cruises or all-inclusives with travel insurance or other products. "Don't ignore travel protection insurance," advises Haskin. "It can be a big profit center."
In addition, if you can't find a product in the marketplace that meets your clients' needs, simply build your own. Skrzynski developed Spring Break group tours because her kids and their friends couldn't find what they wanted in the marketplace.
6. Empower Yourself to Succeed. If you can't compete with big Internet sellers on price, offer value-added services, affiliate perks and personalized contact. Haskin offers shipboard credits when necessary and provides Virtuoso benefits on many sailings; at least three clients have told him the Virtuoso arrangements are why they purchase from him.
The Internet is a great equalizer, allowing small firms to look big. "I spend a lot of time tweaking and refining my website as well as my Internet ads," says Haskin, who markets heavily on pay-per-click programs with Google, Yahoo and MSN.
7. Enhance Personal Contact with Existing Clients. It's harder to bring in a new client than retain an existing one. To service her bank affinity travel account, Reece, an ACC, doesn't just sit in her office. She's highly engaged with bank officials and their clients.
She attends every bank branch opening. She proactively shows the bank how to make its Travel Club more visible. And in getting to know the bank's clients, she is building her own annuity—a sizable client base.
8. Customize, Customize, Customize. Prepare the correct vacation for the correct individual, but then always customize it to that client's needs. For his world cruise clients, Haskin tackled a real challenge—creating a six-day excursion across Australia, including flights, trains, car rentals, hotels and tours.
He's currently working on an itinerary for a client taking a Silversea cruise in Europe, but extending the stay in London and Paris, including a trip to the French Open tennis tournament. "There is a lot of time and coordination involved, but certainly worth it in the end," Haskin says.
9. Be a Detail Fanatic and Expect Pressure. Event planners say God is in the details, and Reece concurs. Just two weeks prior to a local woman's wedding/honeymoon cruise, she got a frantic call from the woman: Due to a mix-up, the planned marriage ceremony had not been arranged. Even though "she was not my client and I had never met her," Reece promised to look into the situation. But even if the ceremony could be arranged later in the cruise, the woman and her fiancé didn't want to stay together in the same cabin before their marriage.
So Reece planned a tropical wedding for the couple at Shaw Park in Montego Bay several days after the start of the cruise. Reece and her son also sailed on the cruise; the future bride stayed with Reece at night and her son stayed with the fiancé. After the nuptials, the couple retired to their cabin for the honeymoon and Reece's son returned to his mom's cabin.
Such attention to detail is critical when planning leisure travel or meetings. "My delivery technique is to watch the details and work with people you trust," says Gross, but know that "meetings are much more stressful [for the agent] than doing a honeymoon or family vacation."
Cruise ship meetings are the easiest, she says, noting that "the crew is so organized that they make me look like a hero to my clients." But, while revenue can be lucrative from meetings in hotels world- wide, be prepared for more intricate details, time-zone changes, navigating through cultures and plenty of job pressure. A big plus, says Gross, is that the meetings business is fee-based and paid up front.
10. Treat it Like a Business, But Love What You Do. To excel as a home-based agent, "you have to treat it like a business, you have to have set hours, you need a big place to work, and you have to be faithful to that schedule," says Skrzynski. Some of our agents say their previous entrepreneurial or corporate experience was a big asset in helping them transition to a home-based agent career.
Outside the office, surround yourself with people who live and breathe travel. "I am on the board of the Miami Chapter of the Circumnavigator Club and active in the Travelers Century Club," says Gross. "Both clubs give me access to people who have been all over the world."
Passion for the job is a huge plus, says Reece. "I love [planning and booking] destination weddings." She adds that after months of work, "it's extremely exciting to see a couple so emotionally high on a beautiful island for even just a few short minutes."
"The obvious answer to measuring success is 'monetarily,'" says Gross, adding, "I measure it by the responses from my clients when they return from a trip. When they're happy, I'm happy."