Brad Tolkin Urges Agents to Do Things Differently

Brad Tolkin speaks at the 2019 National "Dare" Conference to 1,000 travel advisors from Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

As a 1987 video of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech played -- with Reagan telling Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear Down this Wall” -- Brad Tolkin, co-chairman/CEO, World Travel Holdings (WTH), was profiling "Dare" in action. 

Speaking at the last General Session of the 2019 National Conference of Dream Vacations. CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., Tolkin took the "Dare" conference theming and showed the 1,000 travel advisors how taking risks, overcoming the same old way of doing things and taking action, even if one is fearful, can absolutely effect change.

Tolkin focused on how President Reagan’s four simple words changed the world. Those words started a process to end the Cold War, which had continued for decades after World War II.

While it took four years for the wall to come down, Tolkin pointed to the ultimate result, using the travel industry as one example of the positive change created over time. 

Today, river cruising is highly popular in Europe, but that wasn’t the case during the Cold War years. At that time, Soviet-affiliated countries bordered eastern European waterways. Also, oceangoing ships carrying Americans didn't sail to St. Petersburg, Russia, which today is a popular port call on Baltic cruise itineraries.

Do Things Differently

While ending the Cold War was a great challenge, Tolkin told the advisors that Reagan’s words were “such a simple effect and the ripple effect was so positive.”

Similarly, in the 1980s, Steve Case founded America Online. “He took this great dare to create something,” noted Tolkin. It took off so quickly that everyone had an AOL account. Yet it was a new business model.

In the past few years, "thinking differently" resulted in the creation of Uber and Lyft, both founded with great marketplace challenges. 

“Most of the countries around the world have fortresses of taxi unions,” Tolkin said, with the second part of that being strict insurance laws. “Your car insurance just did not cover you to put a sign out and say you’ll pick anyone up and charge them a fare.”

Yet, the two companies have found a way to do just that. “They didn’t care about the hurdles,” Tolkin said. “They plowed right through.” Yes, he acknowledged that certain cities have put shackles on the operation, but Uber is a $50 billion business.

“This genie is never going back in the bottle,” stressed Tolkin. “This alternative means of transportation is here to stay.” Yet, it’s only a decade or so old.

Another example of business leaders thinking differently is Airbnb, in which people don’t just rent a home, they often rent a room in a home. Despite legal issues, “they went right through them,” said Tolkin.

One leader of a major hospitality group recently spoke on TV, telling the host that his company would be opening 30,000 more new hotel rooms within the next year. That sounded great until the head of Airbnb was up next on the TV show and said his firm offers 30,000 more new rooms every month.

“This is a company that had the courage to think differently,” Tolkin said. “This is just unbelievable what has taken place.”

Think Creatively

Tolkin gave another example, Casper, which has a highly rated product. The company created a way to deliver a mattress to the buyer's home in a box and sell it at a competitive rate.

Buyers just open the box and the mattress opens up, without the need for an air pump. Presto, it's ready to sleep on.

What really made the unusual sales process work, though, is the 100-day free trial, making the mattress simple to return. Buyers do nothing, the company “sends people over to pick it up at their cost,” said Tolkin.

The returned mattresses are all donated to charity, not resold, making buyers feel good about the company even though the product didn't fit their needs. 

Six years ago, Tolkin said WTH had one CruiseOne franchisee who had only $5,000 worth of cruise revenue, but today that agency posts $21 million in annual sales. “They had the courage to do things differently,” he said.

Keep Your Customers

Tolkin also addressed the issue of clients not returning to their agent and instead selecting another advisor to book their next cruise. He said that happens with three of every five guests on Royal Caribbean International and one of every two guests on a luxury brand, Silversea Cruises.

He urged agents to stay close to clients, and also talked about how the suppliers all have call to actions that say “call your travel agent,” but then often on websites or in emails and other communications have language that is confusing to the client who thinks they “must” book with the line directly to get a specific deal.

He stressed that he was absolutely not picking on the vendor used as his specific example, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), as he said “all” suppliers pretty much do the same. But, at one place on a promotional page, it says “call your travel agent” but in a top corner it says, “you must be logged into your NCL account to view your exclusive offer.”

So, “if you are the undereducated consumer, how are you interpreting that?” he asked the advisors. The answer? Many clients will assume they must go onto the line’s account site to get the best deal.

He said that puts the impetus on travel advisors to be proactive to and educate their clients. Make sure the clients understand that “every deal the vendor puts in front of the customer is available to you,” emphasizes Tolkin.

“You are your own industry,” he said. “It’s all about trust. Trust starts everything. If your customer trusts you, [then] you will get the sale.” And that will help build the advisor’s brand.

Throughout the week, cruise industry executives and brand and World Travel Holdings executives urged advisors to Dare or “Deliver a Remarkable Experience”, a mission of parent company World Travel Holdings, but also to go beyond when it comes to business operations.

Both brand and WTH executives also put more “edge” into that acronym throughout the week. At this same General Session, Drew Daly, senior vice president and general manager for the three cruise-selling brands, said: “Dares show up at different times in our life. Sometimes they are verbalized by people around us like in the game, Truth or Dare.

"Most of the time it is our own internal voice that challenges us and prevents us from taking action," said Daly. "You have to dare yourself to take risks. Eventually your dare will become your truth and then you can live your best life.”

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