2017 Survival Guide

From fears of terrorism to the continued growth of Airbnb, agents were faced with a number of obstacles to overcome in 2016. And whether it was concerns over the Zika virus or the impact of a Trump presidency, these challenges don’t appear to be diminishing in the year ahead. In addressing such issues, Travel Agent and several of the industry’s best advisors have come up with some solutions to deal with the toughest travel “curve balls” and knock them out of the park.

THE CHALLENGE: The Trump Effect

Love him or hate him, many can agree that President-elect Donald Trump has made some business relationships just a tad awkward for advisors specializing in Mexico and other international destinations that may have been put off by Trump’s heavily America-centric platform.

Considering the various comments that have been made by the president-elect on minorities, do you – could you – still support Trump Hotels by selling them? We asked travel advisors their opinion.

THE SOLUTION: Show Them Where You Stand

There are two ways agents can play the Trump situation. They can either stop selling his products entirely or they can continue to sell Trump Hotels, but with a clear message that they don’t share Trump’s views. Andrey Zakharenko of Always Travel in San Francisco chose option one.

“Our personal brand is defined by who we work with, how we work and the companies we work with,” Zakharenko tells Travel Agent. “We have to offer our clients products that we believe in. The best clients want to know the person they are working with and what that person believes in and stands for. Pretending you are something different will make doing your business much harder and may cost you valuable business and clients in the long run.”

For other advisors, the solution is to simply show your foreign counterparts that you are not in sync with Trump when it comes to his stance on immigration and such.

“International travel is a crucial component to maintaining a broad and educated world view for Americans traveling overseas,” says David Rubin, CEO of DavidTravel. “In addition, it is so important for Americans traveling abroad to be ambassadors, showing the many people we interact with during our travels that we are Americans who are kind, generous, educated, diverse, welcoming and inclusive.”

THE CHALLENGE: Ongoing Fears of Terrorism

From the terrorist attack in Paris in November of 2015 to the Nice attack on Bastille Day this past year, terrorism continues to be a concern for clients traveling to Europe, the Middle East and just about any place where ISIS poses even a remote threat, real or perceived.

According to an analysis of traveler flight plans by travel insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance, American travelers visiting Europe are turning away from Paris one year after terror attacks at Bataclan theater contributed to a 12.8 percent decline in travelers during the 2016 winter holidays.

While Paris endured the summer vacation season with a moderate increase in booking interest, the City of Light fell from 80,214 travelers in the 2015 winter holiday season to 69,975 in 2016. The number of travelers to Istanbul, meanwhile, fell by 60.2 percent and Brussels was down 19.6 percent.

The three cities lost a combined 19,082 travelers in 2016 versus the previous year. By comparison, the top six cities in Europe with major increases of between 16.1 and 30.8 percent added a combined total of 18,073 new travelers — still less than the amount lost by Paris, Istanbul and Brussels. Those cities that benefited most from the redistribution of American travelers interested in visiting Europe include: Amsterdam, increased by 30.8 percent; Lisbon, up 29.0 percent; Venice, a gain of 19.6 percent; Vienna, up 17.5 percent; Munich, a rise of 16.5 percent; and Budapest, increased by 16.1 percent.

Travelers are also opting to explore different cities in the countries they visit: fewer travelers are making plans to visit Geneva (down 17.3 percent) but more are looking to visit Zurich (up 11.7 percent), both in Switzerland; likewise in Germany, the number of travelers to Berlin and Frankfurt decreased (down 9.0 percent and 4.8 percent, respectively) this holiday season versus the last, while planned travel to Munich increased (up 16.5 percent).

THE SOLUTION: Focus on Cosmopolitan Clients and Domestic Destinations

If you are selling Europe or any other region affected by terrorism or threats thereof, you need to pitch to seasoned travelers. The first-timer is easily scared off by media reports whereas veteran jet-setters may see opportunity in visiting a destination people are shying away from simply because of the value such places will offer in order to keep tourism afloat.

Andrey Zakharenko is upfront with customers about his opposition to President-elect Trump: “The best clients want to know the person they are working with and what that person believes in and stands for.”

“With regards to the potential threat of terrorism, if our client has questions or concerns, then we will listen thoroughly,” says Paul Stroncek, supervisor for WMPH Vacations/iCruise.com. “Very seldom lately do we get the terrorism concerns, but if and when a tragedy does occur, we are here for our clients to steer them in the right location for their vacation needs.”

And if you do need to re-route a client because of your clients’ fears, Steven Kadoch, managing director of Ultimate Jet Vacations, says domestic travel is not a bad alternative lately.

“Terrorism is still on the mind of many travelers — specifically those that so often plan trips abroad,” he says. “Because of this, we have fielded more and more interest in luxury domestic vacation options, and as such, we have been enthusiastically expanding our product offerings in the U.S., Hawaii and Canada.” In many cases, he adds, “We have had really exciting feedback, often centered around how pleasantly surprised internationally traveled clients are with the incredible destinations, resorts, ranches and service levels that are found here ‘at home.’ Whether it be Wyoming, Montana, California, Colorado, Florida, British Columbia, or countless other options, there seems to be a big draw to these destinations that lend a stronger feeling of security.”

THE CHALLENGE: The Zika Virus

Meet the new Ebola. The Zika virus has disrupted tourism in such warm-weather destinations as Latin America and the Caribbean since it first broke onto the scene earlier this year.  As people were first learning about this rare mosquito-borne disease that can cause birth defects if pregnant women or those looking to become pregnant are infected, clients avoided just about any place abroad that has mosquitoes, from Hawaii to the Caribbean to Mexico and just about all of Latin America.

Carole-Anne Hughs Wood: “One difficult task of 2016 was correctly educating our team and our travelers about any true risk” posed by Zika.

But as people began to educate themselves more on the disease, such places as Mexico and Hawaii became less of a concern, while only a handful of Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico in particular, are still seeing tourism numbers dip due to the Zika scare.

“We are happy to see interest return to some of the amazing destinations and resorts in the Caribbean and even Mexico that were hit so hard in 2016 because of Zika concerns,” says Carole-Anne Hughs Wood, partner relations manager for Ultimate Jet Vacations. “One difficult task of 2016 was correctly educating our team and our travelers about any true risk, its level of severity, or lack thereof.”

So what does this mean for 2017? Are clients now informed enough on Zika to know where to avoid? What do you tell a client who is thinking about vacationing in a Zika-infected area? Do you re-route them or simply tell them how to prevent contracting the disease?

THE SOLUTION: Education Continues to Be Key

Many advisors we spoke with say clients inquiring about Zika are still drastically misinformed.

“Zika was a big topic in 2016,” says Zakharenko. “I educated myself and found countries that did not have any cases were a good way to deal with the clients’ concerns. Many heard about Zika, but did not know what it was, and others still wanted to travel and wanted to know where they could go.”

Eric Grayson: “We’re vocal about any issues we have with an [app] update ... these app companies rise and fall on their user experience, so they tend to be receptive.”

Just about every destination, even many in the U.S., has had cases of Zika. It is essential to explain the difference to clients between destinations that have cases and places that are home to the actual Zika-carrying mosquito.

For example, Hawaii has had several cases, but they were all contracted from other destinations. This does not mean that Hawaii has Zika. This means a person who was bitten by a mosquito in another country brought it back to the Aloha State. But the infected person can only pass on the disease through sexual intercourse. The amount of people infected with Zika while visiting Hawaii remains zero.

“There have been very few cases in the areas where most of our travelers have been and are booking in the Caribbean and Mexico,” says Hughs Wood. “For travelers with any continuing Zika concerns, we have had more interest in tropical destinations such as Hawaii and the Maldives. For those who have always had the Maldives on their bucket list, it seems some are using 2017 as a great opportunity to make the longer journey from the U.S. to the Indian Ocean.”

And DavidTravel’s Rubin is also pitching Hawaii to clients scarred off by the virus. “In response to Zika concerns, I recommend that agents have a list of destinations where Zika is not a concern, such as Hawaii and Australia, etc.,” he says.

Myste Wright: “As the accessibility to relevant content grows, I would definitely be interested in adding [virtual reality] as a sales and marketing tool.”

Florida may also be considered as an alternative to international destinations. Initial findings from Travel Leaders Group’s 2017 Travel Trends Survey indicates that the Zika virus is having little effect on overall bookings to Florida, with Orlando maintaining its number-one ranking domestically and Miami continuing to hold a place in the Top 10. Nearly 81 percent of agents reported that their bookings to Florida are on a par with or higher than one year ago.

For the record, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection declared, back on December 9, that Florida is Zika-free.

THE CHALLENGE: Virtual Reality and Apps Change the Way Clients See Travel

As we know, technology is continually changing and morphing and there’s always a new travel app that consumers are exposed to. Now, clients expect agents to deliver itineraries and support through a range of apps.

The next technology tool agents need to know about is Virtual Reality (VR), a three-dimensional image that can be interacted with by wearing a headset. Media outlets such as The New York Times use VR and agents have probably come across these headsets at tradeshows this year. And it may not be long until agents are selling destinations and properties with the help of a VR headset. Agents need to constantly educate themselves on the top apps and other technology tools.

THE SOLUTION: Get to Know and Use These Mobile Tools

Here are some of the technology tools agents are using right now.

Eric Grayson, founder of Discover 7 in New York City, says his luxury travel agency partners with the AXUS Travel App, a preferred supplier of Virtuoso. About 1,700 agents are using the app. Grayson uses the mobile tool to help clients in a variety of ways.

“Our clients can see real-time changes to their itineraries, receive live flight alerts and can easily access vendor websites and GPS-based directions,” says Grayson. He adds that the app has helped his agency be more efficient and clients know they have the most up-to-date version of their itinerary, which alleviates a lot of the client’s worry.

“AXUS avails agents of the busy work surrounding proposal generation and itinerary preparation, so they can invest more time in relationship development and delivering superior customer service,” says Julia Douglas, founder and CEO of AXUS Travel App. “AXUS, very simply, allows agents to work smarter.”

Grayson says that when it comes to using apps, presentation can be the biggest challenge. It comes down to what the client needs as different travelers want their itinerary laid out in different ways. It’s the app updates that can present a problem, especially if the client was used to the previous format of the app.

“We’re vocal about any issues we have with an update. It may seem crazy, but these app companies rise and fall on their user experience, so they tend to be receptive,” says Grayson.

Andrea Malis, managing director of the Private Client at Camelback Odyssey Travel, hasn’t committed to using one specific app because she can’t find the right fit for both her and all her clients.

“We have experimented with a few different apps, but we try not to experiment on clients.” Instead, Malis is focusing more on the back-end technology that allows her to automate more of the work.

“With these back-end enhancements, I can focus more time one-on-one creating excitement for a trip in both traditional and new and exciting ways. I can be there by text or by WhatsApp, phone, etc. when my clients are traveling because I have less busy work,” says Malis.

Myste Wright, an agent with Protravel International, uses a range of apps, including AXUS, Umapped, TripScope and TripCase.

“As with anything developed by someone else, there is always some functionality or design you wish were just a bit different. For the most part, though, they are incredibly useful tools,” says Wright. As for VR, she doesn’t use the tool personally right now, but she says she has seen hotels and airlines using the tool.

“As the accessibility to relevant content grows I would definitely be interested in adding it as a sales and marketing tool,” says Wright. Another challenge with VR is that most of Wright’s transactions with her clients are done over the phone and e-mail, so using any such in-person tool would be difficult.

Grayson also sees this same challenge when it comes to VR.

“I think it really comes down to what our clients want. I think as the technology develops, we’ll have increased opportunities to share VR promos with our clients. However, our clientele probably does not want to leave their home or office to experience VR. We expect that we’ll begin doing a lot more of this when the technology is available as part of home entertainment systems,” says Grayson.

Malis doesn’t use VR either, but she does send clients video links that provide a 360-degree view of a room or property when possible. VR may not be in your agency yet, but more suppliers will probably use the tool and clients may follow.

THE CHALLENGE: Airbnb Is Here to Stay

Meet an agent’s new nemesis. Years ago, it was the OTAs that posed the biggest threat to the travel agent industry. And just when it appears that the brick-and-mortar agents have successfully fended off the OTA craze, here comes Airbnb, a company that essentially bypasses the travel agent.

And Airbnb is not going anywhere anytime soon.

The Aruba Tourism Authority (ATA) and Airbnb, Inc. signed an agreement that will aim to position Aruba as a regional leader in the sharing economy and help to promote more tourism to the island. And Travel Agent believes this is just the beginning of Airbnb’s partnerships in the Caribbean and beyond now that the homestay network is becoming more regulated.

Andrea Malis, who has coffee with clients and attends their charity events and such, says, “Clients who want [personal interaction] with me and from me seek me out.”

During Caribbean Week in New York City this past June, we sat down with members of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), who expressed a strong desire for regulation within Airbnb. Frank Comito, CEO and director general of the CHTA, told us then that his association met with top Airbnb executives and discussed the need for regulations for their Caribbean properties.

Comito says each of the CHTA’s 32 member destinations are currently compiling a wish list of sorts that they would like Airbnb to comply with. And it looks like Airbnb complied with Aruba’s wishes.

The bottom line is that an agent stands to lose a lot of money if clients book an Airbnb home over an expensive luxury resort that offers a generous commission.

THE SOLUTION: Prove Your Worth, Tout Your Hotel Connections

Agents, remember how you proved your worth over the OTAs by selling personalized customer service to clients? Do the same thing with Airbnb.

“Airbnb is turning into another iteration of an online travel agency, even as  we still retain the upper hand when it comes to providing personal recommendations and superior customer service,” says Rebecca Norrbom of Holiday Cruises & Tours. “As a travel consultant, one thing we must always be ready to do is adapt to the changing environment by keeping ourselves informed and equipped with alternatives.”

Blaine Horton of The Accomplished Traveler tells clients the advantages his connections can provide them over an Airbnb booking. “At a hotel, my friend works there. They’re going to upgrade you,” he says. “They’re going to guarantee your check-in time. They’re going to give you a bottle of champagne when you check in.”

Rubin goes a step further by advising agents to compile a list of all industry partners that do not cut the travel agent out of the booking process.

“I recommend that agents curate a great list of suppliers who they trust that work with agents and pay commission, such as Stay Alfred, One Fine Stay, Hyatt House, Abercrombie & Kent Villas and many great villa / apartment rental companies worldwide,” says Rubin. “Point out to clients that they may have problems relying on Airbnb. For example, a host can cancel with little advance notice and you only get approximately a 10 percent credit toward another booking. This can be a major problem, especially if travelers are visiting on busy dates. Also, even if a host on an Airbnb gets great reviews, they may not be renting in compliance with all local laws, condo rules or their lease.”

THE CHALLENGE: Clients Are Seeking A Home-Like Setting When They Meet Agents

Travelers may be venturing far from home, but that doesn’t mean they want their travel-booking experience to feel just like a business transaction and they don’t always want their hotel to feel like a hotel. It seems like travelers are craving an experience where their agents act more like “hosts” and their hotel is a “home-away-from-home.” Airbnb is still largely popular, more and more hotels are offering travelers villas, complete with kitchens and home amenities, and W Hotels still refer to their lobbies as “Living Rooms.”

When it comes to meeting with or speaking to an agent, clients want to feel taken care of and feel as if they’re collaborating with a friend to plan a trip together, rather then meeting someone with whom they have a strict business relationship. An agent needs to be a friend, confidante and experienced business professional all in one.

THE SOLUTION: Cultivate Personal Relationships With Your Clients; Be Their Friend

Some agents make clients feel comfortable by treating them truly like friends by handing over their personal cell phone numbers.

“We don’t have business hours. Clients can call us 24/7. They have our personal phone numbers and e-mail addresses. I’ve met many of our clients in person,” says Discover 7’s Grayson. And like all good friends, he and his agency staff offer to go out to brunch with clients.

“We make a standing offer to take any of our clients out to breakfast in Manhattan. And yes, clients tend to really appreciate those personal touches. Part of what differentiates us from more automated, technology-based services is our ability to cultivate personal relationships. That’s a big part of why clients come to us, so we make sure that they have all the access they want,” continues Grayson.

Camelback Odyssey’s Malis also offers to meet clients in the office or over coffee. She says she will even attend clients’ charity events or she will invite clients to her agency’s events. But she also thinks there are clients who aren’t seeking such a close relationship with their agent.

“I think there is also a set of clients that wishes to keep an arm’s length difference. That is what is great about this industry. For me, personal interaction with my clients is a shot in the arm. I need to do what I do, and clients who want that with me and from me seek me out. Clients that don’t value that type of relationship or find it intrusive have many wonderful advisors to choose from that solve their personal travel objectives,” says Malis.

Protravel’s Wright says the personal touch that agents can provide is critical to the industry.

“It’s the personal touch that makes all the difference in the world, and why travel advisors will always hold a valued place within hospitality despite the advent of DIY platforms and OTAs,” she says.