AFFLUENT TRAVELERS CAN BE AN ENORMOUS BOOST TO ANY HOME-BASED AGENT'S BUSINESS. Wealthy clients usually vacation longer, more frequently and travel to more exotic destinations where they expect the absolute best in hotels, restaurants and extras. They want to travel first class all the way and can afford to pay top dollar to do so, racking up your commissions quickly. The well-heeled can also be quite loyal, sending their tight-knit group of equally affluent friends your way as well. In other words, do a great job, earn their trust and you'll set yourself up for lasting and lucrative success.
But understanding this demanding market can be quite tricky. We spoke to several top agents who have learned to capitalize on the luxury market and have built thriving businesses out if it. Here, they give their top tips on how to navigate the high-class waters and reap those rich rewards.
Play in Their League
The secret to selling travel to anyone is to build trust—people have to get to know you and like you before they decide to spend their money with you. That's why, top agents say, you've got to become part of their world.
"Put yourself in front of the right people," says Bambi Duvall, a 27-year industry veteran who works out of her home in Winchester, VA, as an independent consultant of McCabe World Travel. "One way to do this is by aligning yourself with an affluent private school. They all do fundraising auctions or events; get involved."
By donating her time at such an event several years ago, Duvall met wealthy families, who became her first luxury clients. "I have been invited back every year by the school, and have gotten to know many families that way. It's brought me lots of business," says Duvall. She cites garden clubs and the women's auxiliaries of hospitals as other groups with potential for booking high-end group trips. "Or, help get a company to donate a trip to an affluent county's auction."
There are other ways to ensure that you're moving in the right circles. Join a local country club or other organization where the wealthy spend time, say agents, but don't come off looking like a roving salesman. Instead, present yourself as a well-mannered and sophisticated peer, and as a worldly traveler, up-to-date on all the cutting-edge destinations. If you're traveling—say, on a luxury cruise-liner—impress others with sparkling conversation over cocktails and tales of other destinations or ships you've seen. Later, the subject of what you do for a living will probably come up. "It's always better for them to ask for your card," adds Duvall.
Be Sure to Look the Part
As well as acting the part, you've got to dress the part; appearance matters. "You have to look like you can relate to the client," says Mary Jean Tully, chairman and CEO of The Cruise Professionals. "Agents who don't dress and act the part, no matter how knowledgeable they are, will not succeed."
Tully's experience has led her to take this concept even further. "I never want any of my agents to feel intimidated by not having the right clothes or accessories. Many of my agents have children and are budgeting for school, sports and dance lessons; they aren't thinking of their own personal luxury goods. I decided to have our own 'Vogue closet' in the office, so that when my agents are going on a cruise, they can borrow jewelry, handbags, luggage, scarves, clothes and pashminas," says Tully, which she says helps her agents fit in well with the other well-heeled passengers.
"It is very important to look the part and to feel comfortable," she adds. "This is a small way that I can help my agents do that. It instills more confidence."
Expand Your Idea of Luxury
All experts we spoke to shared an evolved idea of the true meaning of luxury. What's ideal for one client can be completely different from another's idea of luxe. Successful agents know their clients well, and know what pushes their buttons.
Bob Malmberg, founder and president of the exclusive, high-end Malmberg Travel Group in Boston explains that, "It's not always clear just exactly what the very rich consumer intends to buy. We had a request the other day for the 'best island in the Caribbean.' Well, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it is with travel products—and so far none has been established that will please all of its customers, all of the time.
"Just because client A loved St. Tropez is not a reason to believe that customer B will also love it," he adds. "In the 'happiness business' which is actually what we're in, the goal is to bring the customer back to us pleased with our efforts, his investment and our management of his time—which cannot be replaced. It should be our ability to be able to discern the customer and to align the products and services that are most likely to deliver an experience that is rewarding, enriching, exciting and totally memorable for the right reasons."
Understanding what a client wants and being able to offer suggestions is the key, agrees Tully. "Remember, what is luxury to you might be a necessity to your client. Know your client. Is being somewhere out in the middle of nowhere with no phones a luxury to them, or is it being in a big city staying at a fabulous Ritz-Carlton with Club access with a car and driver, front row tickets to the theater and a reservation at that hard-to-get-into restaurant? Taking a full world cruise on a wonderful cruise line for 105 days is heaven for one client and a nightmare for another."
"Good agents are good interviewers," adds Duvall. "I sit down with new clients at length and ask tons of questions. You've got to listen to them so you can understand them and understand what they're looking for." She points out that not all wealthy travelers are necessarily millionaires. "Sometimes very wealthy people want to travel moderately. And sometimes it's the people of moderate means who save and save to really splurge and treat themselves to a special, top-of-the line trip. I sell to all walks of life," she says.
Going That Extra Mile
Regardless of your client's background, anyone spending top dollar on a vacation deserves to get top-quality service. And ultimately, showing that you value their business by indulging your clients will earn you their allegiance.
"Show them that you're thinking of them," says Duvall, who will call ahead to the hotel when sending a family and instruct that travel-related gifts or toys are left in the rooms for the client's children when they arrive. Or, if a client indicates interest in a particular destination in conversation, she will get a DVD about the destination and mail it to them to view, complete with a snack of popcorn to eat while they watch.
"Recently," she says, "a family with young kids showed interest in the Galapagos Islands. I sent a basket with a Galapagos expedition DVD, a couple of children's gift sets with activity books, popcorn and a note saying, 'Enjoy on your next family night!' They thought it was incredible. You have to get creative."
Along with creative extras, remember the cornerstones of great travel service, says Tully. "Clients in the true 'luxury' sector are used to conveniences. They don't want any hidden surprises. Always offer them all of the options that are available. Don't assume anything or think that anything is out of the question." Always be attainable to clients, and be prompt in your responses, Tully adds.
Other little extras to get yourself noticed include the overall packaging of your company's business materials. What does your brand say about you? To give a truly "luxe" appearance, upgrade your business cards; use thicker paper or one with a unique texture. Use raised lettering and elegant fonts. Business cards, and other printed materials, are a reflection of your service.
It's all in the details, agrees Malmberg, who does small things like putting logos on the cocktail napkins that clients will use on their private jet to a destination. "We don't want to knock people out with the full logo treatment all of the time, though," he cautions. Subtlety and classy designs will win big with the luxury group. For instance, he says, "cocktail napkins just have a red 'M' on them," instead of the full Malmberg Travel companies logo.
Join a Consortium
Duvall is adamant that she owes a lot of her success to the luxury consortium she belongs to, Virtuoso.
"They've given me the opportunity to really increase my client base. If you want to be known as a luxury agent, you simply need to be connected with a luxury network."
She cautions that agents should really do their homework before choosing a network to join. "Don't just sign up with any company you find on the Internet. Do the research; know the consortium." Duvall says that when she contacts hotel managers to alert them that VIP clients are on the way, her Virtuoso affiliation helps her get clients free room upgrades and other bonus amenities.
"Even the very rich like to get a good deal, just like anybody else. They want value for their money."