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Fix Your Bottom Line NowSeptember 25, 2009 By: Ruthanne Terrero Travel Agent
What can you do today to increase your bottom line? That was the topic of a panel discussion recently at Virtuoso’s Travel Mart. The discussion resulted in several wonderful tips that will help you with your business—some new, some tried and true.
The moderators were Jim Strong of Strong Travel Services and Victoria Boomgarden, vice president, Best Travel’s luxury division. The panelists were Julie Lemish, Rex Travel; Georgia Kirsner, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company; Dennis Pinto, Micato Safaris; and Mindy Rozenberg of Pisa Brothers.
1. Pick up the Phone
We’ve all experienced it. You’ve asked someone on your staff to get information from an outside source. You wait for the answer and when you don’t hear back, you’re told, “Oh, they haven’t responded to my e-mail!” At times like this it’s tempting to pick up a telephone to show them how they can actually speak into it and hear what the person on the other end is saying. It’s not the worst thing you can do. Nine times out of 10, the person you wanted to reach is sitting right at their desk and ready to respond, as any other human being would be. The travel industry is built on relationships, so the more you personally interact with others, the more trust you’ll have in them and their products, and vice versa. “This is a great time to form the relationships, to get on the phone, and talk to your clients, not necessarily to sell them anything but just to see what is going on in their lives,” says Pinto of Micato Safaris.
Lemish of Rex Travel says that in this economy, customers have asked her sympathetically how her business is surviving. Her response has been upbeat, along the lines of, “Actually due to loyal clients like you, we are having a fantastic year.”
“Attitude is key to selling,” adds Pinto. “I spent a lot of time in travel agencies this summer and it’s interesting that those agents who project a positive attitude are doing better than those who are not. I see that even with my own staff. When someone calls and asks, ‘How are you doing?’ the answer shouldn’t be ‘I’m okay,’ or ‘I’m hanging in there.’ Why would you book a safari with a guy who is just hanging in there? We often say these words because they seem like the appropriate thing to say. That is a strategic mistake.”
3.Prospect for new business
During tough times, many businesses tend to stay close to those companies they’ve already partnered with. However, the playing field can get skewed easily if business starts to dry up. Micato’s Pinto says this is a good time to join forces with businesses larger than yours.
“Chances are there is a luxury car dealership in your hometown that’s desperate to have a travel event to just drive traffic into the showrooms,” he advises. “There are also retail stores that want to show off their cruisewear or whatever it is they are trying to unload at 40 percent discounts.”
Pinto says Micato has had great success in getting travel agencies to partner with retail stores. “The great thing about working with Saks Fifth Avenue or Nordstrom’s is their wonderful goodie bags, and of course you have a bunch of your brochures in there.” He says picking up the phone and calling rather than e-mailing is the best way to start off such an endeavor.
Rozenberg of Pisa Brothers suggests going straight for the Ferrari or Mercedes dealership in town. “If people are buying Ferraris, they are traveling,” she says. “You just need to partner up and say to the salespeople, ‘You bring your people, I will bring my people. I will provide all the refreshments (because all the suppliers have a budget to help you sell), you do the goodie bags, and people will come.’”
4.Be Super Creative
When Rozenberg went to Australia through Virtuoso’s LBD program, her tour guide with Epic Private Journeys shared with her how he sets up Harley-Davidson trips. His clients fly to Australia, he organizes the rental of a Harley and they embark on a very upscale biking trip. “I know nothing about biking, but there are a lot of Harley-Davidson shops in my neighborhood and it’s expensive to buy a Harley-Davidson. So, I want to partner up with them,” says Rozenberg, who has plans to contact the producers of the reality TV show “American Chopper” to see if they are interested in co-marketing a trip with her.
Don’t have a vice president of marketing for your agency? That shouldn’t keep you from personally marketing yourself. Rozenberg admits she is “definitely the queen of schmooze. I never had trouble talking to people.”
Constantly looking for marketing ideas, she finds herself chatting up people standing in the queue at Macy’s, only to find serendipitously that they’re trying to plan a honeymoon or that they’ve been searching for a good travel agent.
“You need to constantly think within your community,” she says. Rozenberg attends inexpensive cooking demonstrations at stores like Williams-Sonoma, and grabs the opportunity if there is a free cooking demonstration. “If they are teaching you how to cook Italian food, you can talk about Italy,” she says. You can even make it a formal process and become part of the presentation by teaming up with a supplier who sells Italy. “You can say, ‘Look I’m doing a travel night, would you make a donation so I could do a giveaway, and would you also want to come and give a little talk?’ If you have enough participants, they are usually more than happy to come,” adds Rozenberg.
If you’re going to approach a retailer such as Williams-Sonoma, Rozenberg recommends aiming for the top. “Always go to the top, don’t go to somebody that doesn’t have the power. Obviously, go nicely dressed and bring some information about yourself—maybe some sample trips that you have put together—or about your agency. Just say that you want to partner with them to host a travel event and that you don’t need them to supply anything because you can co-market the event with a travel supplier.”
At the event, obtain new customer information by having the consumers who are present fill out a piece of paper with their name and their contact information for a raffle—a prize supplied by the travel vendor you’ve teamed up with (this could be a trip or simply a goodie bag). Be sure to ask them where they have traveled before and where they want to travel next. Also, remember to take home all of those pieces of paper with that new customer information on them. “I have had really good success with that,” says Rozenberg.
6.Make That Database Sing
Once you get those names, enter them into your electronic database. (Don’t have one? You’re cheating yourself. Get one now.) What type of information goes into it? Names and e-mails are the bare minimum. Does your client like to tango? Are they a connoisseur of fine wines? Do your records show that their child has reached an age when they may have graduated from college, freeing up your client’s funds for more travel? Input all of that into their file so that you can help craft realistic vacation suggestions for them. Moreover, when you do speak to them, they’ll feel they are hearing from an old friend who is ready to advise them as a lifestyle consultant.
“People often say, ‘You have a phenomenal memory, how do you remember that I got this puppy four years ago?’” says Micato’s Pinto. “I have the world’s worst memory; I look into my database every morning before I make my sales calls and I figure out what has been going on with the people I am visiting.”
7.Get an Intern
Who better to enhance your database than an intern? In this economy, you can actually get people to work for you for a stipend or even for free, while giving a test-run, so to speak. People are anxious to learn a trade and have some good experience on their resume, so go for it. Craigslist is a great source to place an ad and it’s only $25. Be as specific as you can in describing the position you’re seeking to fill, so you’re not sorting through resumes of people who simply love to travel.
Set certain goals for yourself and for the intern so the experience has value to both of you. Assure them that once you have taken them on, they’ll leave with skills they can add to their bios. Be flexible: remember they are working for little or no money, but do ensure that the situation works for your business as well.
“It’s very exciting for someone to work in a travel agency,” says Pinto, who got his start in the business by working in one himself while he was in college.
8.Give Clients Permission to Travel
Jim Strong asked Lemish of Rex Travel to comment on the importance of giving “permission” to travel and personalization of the sales process to the customer. Lemish says her upscale clientele these days is sensitive about being too obvious about traveling in high style.
“Even though they are millionaires or billionaires, they are shy,” she says. “They think, ‘If I spend money, my neighbors are going to see that and then I will look bad.’ So you do need to give them the permission to travel.”
When she’s in this position, Lemish points out that her other clients are traveling and spending. “Not only are they spending money, they are spending more than ever before,” she says. “They are just not chatting about it at cocktail parties.”
Bottom line? “It’s up to the travel advisor to tell them that people are still booking and taking their family on great trips. They are still reconnecting and investing in themselves more than anything. I think people want to hear that they need to invest in themselves.”
Lemish’s agency assures its clientele that it’s very discreet with clients’ information and won’t reveal to anyone that they’re taking a vacation. Once the client is comfortable with that scenario, they usually book a trip within a week.
9.Ask for the Business and the Referral
This is a great time to get referrals, says Lemish. “Let’s face it; a lot of your competitors are lazy; they are sitting and waiting for the phone to ring. They are not proactively contacting their clients in any way, shape or form,” she says. Her tip? “Just pick up the phone and ask people how they are doing. Say, ‘Hey you know, I saw this trip and it made me think of you. What are you thinking about doing with your family? This is perfect timing.’ People really enjoy the fact that you thought of them, that you cared enough to think about them.”
Even if that particular client isn’t traveling, they’ll likely refer their friends to you, she adds. “Let’s face it; there are fantastic deals out there, so people are getting a lot more for their money. It doesn’t mean it has to be a cheap trip. A lot of clients appreciate the fact that you are looking for value for them, but they certainly aren’t going to move from the Ritz-Carlton to the Holiday Inn. A lot of people are really thankful when you say, ‘Hey, why not go to the Ritz this year and with these great offers that we have, you [ought] to go not only [with] your family, but the whole extended family.”
10.Tell them Why They Must Go
Remind your clients that even though the economy is bad, life’s precious moments still need to be celebrated. “Remind them that their grandson is going to be five this year and this year only, and they are going to miss this opportunity in their life,” says Lemish. “That is where people really thank you for the personal relationship. The database is key. All the points about the clients, their kids, their grandkids have to go in your database and have to go in while you are on the phone or immediately after you speak to them. It really is all about the one-to-one. You really don’t learn those things by e-mail.”
11.Charge for Services
Victoria Boomgarden asked Pinto about getting travel advisors into the mindset of charging clients for their services. “I am not sure when the last time was that you went to a doctor and he gave you a full checkup and then said, ‘Pay or don’t pay, it is up to you,” says Pinto. “I think we should get over the fact that people don’t want to pay; frankly, we are all doing ourselves a disservice by not charging a fee. If you don’t value yourself, no one else is going to. We, as an industry, need to get past the fee and a $30 fee isn’t what I am talking about here. You are worth more than $30; you need to charge more than that. I think it is important to truly value yourself at what you feel you are worth and then make that your fee. I can assure you, you are going to do very well with that strategy.”
While charging a fee is a fundamental policy every agency should adhere to, advisors should know when forcing the point would be short-sighted.
Lemish has one client who will not pay a fee. However, she spends $300,000 to $500,000 per year with the agency and refers some very good clients. “So I have 10 clients I can never charge a fee, but because I don’t charge them a $50 airline ticketing fee, they will refer a $100,000 Regent Seven Seas booking to me,” she says.
12.Navigate the Budget Terrain
Jim Strong asked Rozenberg of Pisa Brothers about upselling the client during the proposal process.
The first step, she says, is finding out what the client’s budget is. Many will respond that they don’t know and ask broadly what the agent can do for them.
“They know what their budget is,” says Rozenberg. “You really just need to get it out of them so you know that you are selling them what they can afford. You can’t quote them a Crystal Cruise if their budget is Royal Caribbean; you really have to find that out.”
Once that question is answered, it’s time to upsell the client by making the travel experience come to life for them. And forget about being timid about the economy. Rozenberg knows that even now, clients don’t want to diminish the quality of their travel experiences. “Once you have stayed in a Ritz-Carlton or sailed on Crystal Cruises or flown first-class, you don’t go back. You just don’t.”
Another hint: If a client is traveling for a special occasion, they are likely to have a little extra money set aside for the trip. You just need to paint the picture for them to show that it is worth the extra money. “They’ll want the suites if they are traveling with their families,” says Rozenberg. “They’ll want the balcony. Ask them, ‘When you go to Alaska, do you really want to be out at Glacier Bay with hundreds of people or do you want to be in your private balcony with a blanket and sipping hot chocolate?’”
13.Don’t think with your own Pocketbook
Along those lines, Pinto says it’s important that the travel advisor doesn’t project their own values onto the client. A client recently showed an interest in flying privately by helicopter through one leg of a journey in India. The consultant working with him determined it would cost $27,000, for just one hour. She thought that was exorbitant. However, the gentleman in question had made $572 billion last year.
“You have to look at it through their eyes,” says Pinto. “The whole key to upselling is to paint the picture of choice A vs. choice B and then let them make the decision. Inevitably, they make the right choice.”
Lemish says many advisors miss the opportunity to upsell after the sale has been made. Her agency has a system that automatically rechecks hotel and cruise rates prior to the trip, a practice, she says, that cements clients’ loyalty.
“When the price does drop, you want to be the person contacting your client by saying, ‘Hey great news, you know the cruise we booked you on, they just went from 40 percent off to 50 percent off, so you are going to save another $3,000,’” says Lemish. She recommends immediately upselling them to a higher level of suite, using the savings they just earned. “That person is already psychologically committed to spending the $10,000 or $100,000 for the trip. This is a great long-term strategy to get them up to the best cabins on the best cruise lines.”
14.Embrace Social Networking
Georgia Kirsner of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company encouraged the audience to embrace social networking. She reported that she was recently on a fam trip with an agent who, within days of returning home, had posted a blog of the experience with his own photos. He set it to music and within a week had enjoyed more than 1,000 viewings of the story. It didn’t cost him a thing. “I thought that was extremely exciting and proactive,” says Kirsner.
Rules to Live By
Jim Strong of Strong Travel Services offers five critical bits of advice for agencies to share with their employees:
1. Get off of e-mail and speak directly to the client on the phone.
2. Be social; access new clients via social media.
3. Show your value. When presenting options, show the client what they are saving and what is being added at no charge.
4. Work with your preferred suppliers to negotiate better options for the clients.
5. Do not be greedy—the client will make note of the generosity of service in these difficult times.