|Donna Flora, vice president of travel industry relations for American Express|
In an industry replete with people who are passionate about what they do, Donna Flora stands out as being especially ardent about her vocation. The vice president of travel industry relations for American Express is a road warrior 85 percent of the year, meeting with suppliers, attending trade shows and maintaining a strong presence at industry events, yet when asked to reveal her preferred travel destination, she stills shows great enthusiasm for seeing new places.
“My favorite is always the last place I visited,” she tells Travel Agent. “Every new place is a fantastic learning experience. The travel industry offers us the opportunity to visit amazing places all around the world and I have had the good fortune of seeing so much of the world. Wherever I travel, I meet interesting people and make new friends.”
If pressed, Flora, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and married in the U.S., will concede that her honeymoon in Hong Kong and Thailand and “falling in love all over again in a hot-air balloon over the Masai Mara in Africa” were travel highlights. But then, she also fondly recalls that very recent trip to Buenos Aires, where a visit with her sisters “created memories that will live forever in my heart.”
Reaching Out to Agents
Flora’s responsibilities for American Express could almost be called two-fold, which explains her need to be on the road for much of the year. She is charged with advancing awareness of the American Express brand and card acceptance within the travel trade; at the same time she is the primary liaison to the U.S. travel agency community and travel industry associations for American Express.
“We understand the importance of investing in the travel industry. We support every major industry organization, including board seats and significant financial contributions to The Travel Industry Association, the Travel Business Roundtable, USTOA, the World Travel and Tourism Council, ASTA, ATME, CLIA, SATH and The Interactive Travel Services Association, just to name a few,” says Flora.
Indeed, investing in associations that promote travel to consumers is a key interest for American Express, whose customers “are the travel industry’s customers,” says Flora, who notes that 85 percent of American Express Cardmembers purchased individual travel products through travel agents in the last 12 months. Further research shows that cardmembers, on average, used a travel agent 5.1 times in the last 12 months. These same customers spent more than $4,700 with their travel agent in the last 12 months, and report a 76 percent repeat factor with the same agent.
“So, there isn’t a mystery in why we support the travel agency distribution channel,” says Flora. “We are committed to the agency community because our customers are committed to them.”
Integrity and Reliability Are Keys to Success
Being a supporter of the travel agency community puts Flora in front of suppliers constantly, and so Travel Agent couldn’t resist asking her, “What makes a great travel supplier?”
“The most successful suppliers always deliver what they promise. Integrity is the key for any supplier,” she was quick to respond. “No one wants to get the used-car sales pitch; they want to be assured that their expectations will be met, if not exceeded,” says Flora. Other attributes suppliers should display? “Safety, security and reliability are paramount. They must conduct business with competence and professionalism, representing truthfully and accurately all facts, including quoting prices that match actual deliverable prices. Suppliers must demonstrate ethical and financial responsibility, and their business conduct must instill confidence in their reliability and integrity,” says Flora.
In turn, the question begged to be asked: What makes a great travel agent?
“A great travel agent embraces new technology while offering personalized service,” she says. “They have the ability to anticipate client needs by getting to know their customers and keeping their profiles and preferences for customized service. You must think of the client as a family member, knowing birthdays, anniversaries, food allergies, etc.
“A great travel agent is a great listener, always soliciting feedback from their customers. An agent has to be the customer’s best advocate and always be three steps ahead when anticipating their needs; the customer should always expect their agents to exceed expectations. A great travel agent is also someone who is resourceful; they will not accept a ‘no’ from someone not empowered to give them a ‘yes’ for an answer. Finally, a great travel agent is someone who inspects what they deliver, because so much of what they do relies on a third party via airlines, hotels, tour operators, cruise lines, etc.”
Flora’s expertise comes not only from her years with American Express, but with the life that preceded joining the corporation.
In fact, Flora inherited the travel bug early, since her parents traveled extensively and instilled in her early the value of experiencing other cultures while visiting foreign lands. As a result, Flora feels her career in travel followed as an entirely natural progression.
“I can’t say it was a choice, but rather a path that happened organically. I’ve never considered doing anything else,” she says.
After arriving in the U.S. at the age of 23, Flora visited a small travel agency and volunteered to work for free for three months in order to prove herself.
“I assured them that at the end of the three months, they would want to hire me. They gave me a chance and from that day forward I made it my job to become indispensable to each and every employee of that agency.”
And so Flora did her best at stamping brochures, writing airline tickets by hand, making deliveries, answering the phone and even taking out the garbage.
“My mind was like a sponge absorbing every bit of information available to me regarding the travel industry. I listened and learned, worked extremely late every evening, read trade publications and participated in countless related events.”
It paid off. Flora received an entry-level position at the end of her “volunteer” stint; two years later she was named manager of the agency. Her first international trip was to Tokyo. “From the minute I got off the plane, I knew I had found exactly what I was meant to do.”
American Express entered her life in 1991 when she had been working for Revere Travel in New Jersey for 10 years. The corporation bought the agency and that afforded Flora the opportunity to climb another corporate ladder. She began managing retail travel offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which led to the opportunity to lead the company’s Executive Travel Management division.
From where she sits now, Flora can easily assess how the role of the agent has undergone a fundamental shift over the past 10 years.
“When I began as an agent, we were the ambassadors to people’s far-away dreams and we served a vast clientele. Recently agents have had to become better equipped at marketing to niche groups and proving themselves as the ‘professional’ with access to information a ‘civilian’ might not otherwise have.”
Fees Raise Expectations
“Now don’t get me wrong,” says Flora. “Independent travel agents have long been professionals; however, they were not charging for their advice until this past decade. Today’s travel agents have to deliver more, while at the same time illustrating a specific value to their services by charging for their skills. Despite changes in delivery and format, over the past five years we have realized that the travel industry distribution channel is not only here to stay, but is the most lucrative distribution channel for most suppliers. There will always be other channels, but the role of the travel agent continues to strengthen as more and more people rely upon them for the information and attention that they provide.”
That the world has changed dramatically since September 11, 2001, has also changed what the public values in their travel experiences, and in their travel agents, she says, noting that consumers today demand more in terms of flexibility, security and support.
“Since events such as 9/11 and the tsunami in Southeast Asia, customers are more interested in security and amenity-based programs, rather than bargains. They want to know they will be safe and that in the event of an emergency they will be able to count on their travel agent to get them back home quickly,” says Flora.
For Flora, a passion for travel means more than caring about the joys a destination will bring; it now means caring about the survival of the destination itself. In fact, her concern about the environment has become a driving force in how she conducts business.
“I have made a personal commitment to doing all I can to contribute in any way to the preservation of the environment. Protection of the environment is crucial to the travel industry and great agents and suppliers understand the importance of integrating responsible practices in their companies,” she says. “Customers’ actions demonstrate, now more than ever, that they expect the companies with which they do business to develop sustainability strategies.”
Flora’s passion for the earth is apparent on a much more granular level. When she’s not traveling, she can be found in her home office in Bucks County, PA. When she’s not working, she can be found most often in her garden, and she says that she spends as much time as possible with family and friends. During this “down” time, she is likely reflecting on an ongoing successful career that is well appreciated.
“Through my career at American Express and previous agencies, I have accomplished my travel dream, while at the same time being able to pass on the incredible experience of world travel to so many of my customers. I love my career,” she says. “I am truly fortunate.”