|Priscilla Alexander, president of Protravel International, launched the company in 1984 and has always welcomed new entrants to the travel advisor business.|
While the travel advisor community has put a special focus over the past few years on bringing new talent into the industry, Priscilla Alexander, president of Protravel International, has always welcomed those who want to enter the business from other careers, even before the 28-year-old company began garnering $850 million a year in revenues and had a staff of 850, as it does now.
Today, Alexander continues to welcome those who have tried other work experiences prior to becoming a travel advisor; in fact, it’s a practice she prefers over hiring someone right out of school, the main reason being that they’ve likely already learned the art of listening to colleagues and clients, which she considers to be an important skill. “These people are not coming in to be order takers. They have to give some guidance to the person they are speaking to,” she says, adding that it takes a bit of maturity to sell luxury travel.
Those new advisors Travel Agent magazine spoke to who have joined Protravel after having been employed in other job sectors spoke enthusiastically about the resources that were immediately available to them at the company.
That’s due in part to the fact that Protravel, whose headquarters are on Madison Avenue in New York, supporting a network of 22 branch locations throughout the U.S. and London, plus a network of hosted agents across the country, has always had a toolbox readily available to all of its advisors. That toolbox includes a strong support system that helps fledgling agents to grow and gives them nearly instantaneous access via technology to the many, many extremely experienced travel advisors in the Protravel network. Want to know what a hotel in a far-flung country is really like or where to find an onsite guide for a discerning luxury traveler? Ask the question electronically and you’ll likely have 30 answers via e-mail within just a few minutes from learned colleagues all over the country.
It’s important to note that not everyone who looks at working in the travel industry amorously is a shoo-in at Protravel. Candidates are screened during the hiring process to determine whether they simply want to use the job as a vehicle to see the world.
Key Traits of a Good Advisor
“There is a big disconnect between loving travel and selling travel,” Alexander tells Travel Agent. “Loving travel is an ingredient, but it isn’t the primary reason for actually selling travel. That’s quite different.”
One might argue that listening to people is another main ingredient. Being able to interpret what you’re hearing from them is another, and probably the most important. Say, for example, someone says they just want to go away to a deserted island and not see anyone for days and days. That might be good for, say one night, until the client, who loves nightlife and a real social scene, starts phoning home to get the heck out of there.
“Listening to and figuring out who the person is that you are speaking to is important, because sometimes when people are describing what they want to do, it’s not realistic at all, so they have to be guided by a good travel agent, and a good travel agent has to understand who they are talking to,” says Alexander.
Having traveled through much of the world also doesn’t prepare you for that moment when you’re dealing with another person’s travel needs for the first time.
“I always tell people when they come into it, ‘There is no place you can go to school to really learn what happens when you are confronted with people who are calling you for travel,’ ” says Alexander. “It’s almost like you have to be a shoemaker; you have to hit your thumb a couple of times with the hammer before you learn. We always tell our agents it’s a very serious thing to take people’s money because it costs a lot of money to travel well. It’s a big commitment and a big responsibility. Travel is also a big emotional thing for people. They have an emotional investment in travel that you have to take very seriously.”
When Protravel does hire someone who is new to the business, management explains that the company is going to invest in them because it believes they have the qualities to make for a good travel agent. That investment includes putting them into basic training, where they learn the technology (some of it proprietary to the company) that they’ll need to use. That’s done with the help of trainers and webinars and includes learning Sabre as well as how to use Protravel’s internal systems.
When that’s accomplished, they’re put under the wing of a mentor, usually sitting by the side of and assisting an accomplished agent, listening to how they speak to suppliers and clients. They’ll learn how to organize the process of building a trip and how to decide what to offer to people when they call and say, “I want to go to the Caribbean,” a request that would then be deconstructed to determine whether the client is traveling with family, what the budget is and where they have vacationed in the past.
During this six-month process it’s possible the novice advisors may start selling, but from the get-go they’re trained in how to monitor travelers’ expectations. “They’re also taught how to deal with problems because there is always some problem,” says Alexander. “It could be on the reservations level, for example, after you’ve given them a nonrefundable airfare, suddenly they could say, ‘Oh, by the way, my daughter is going to have to leave early.’ But they tell you later.”
Thus, the learning process instructs how to be sure to get that type of information beforehand, a practice which Alexander calls “protecting the traveler.”
“In other words, you don’t sell a nonrefundable ticket, whether it’s in first class or at the back of the plane, to people who say, ‘We may leave early or one may join us later.’ You can’t assume anything. So there is a qualifying period to learn things that an inexperienced agent would never think of but that experienced agents are always on the lookout for.”
Those coming into the travel advisor business also have to realize that even as their experience broadens, there may always be some challenge that they haven’t been prepared for.
“There is no agent who hasn’t been burned, who doesn’t get burned and who doesn’t get flummoxed by some of the things that people will bring up after you think everything is settled and organized,” says Alexander. “So listening to how experienced agents anticipate these things is very, very important.”
Alexander has been delighted to see that the experienced agents at Protravel are very open to helping those new agents who appear to have a serious interest in developing their skills to grow their own book of business. “I find that there is a great level of collegiality,” she says.
It’s also important that developing agents realize that becoming a luxury travel advisor is not a 9-to-5 job. In fact, it can run 24/7 if, for example, your clients are abroad and checking in to a hotel room only to learn their room isn’t ready or that they’re going to be walked to another hotel. The advisor will indeed get that phone call from them, even if it is 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon in New York or Los Angeles or wherever they are based.
“They have to understand the quirkiness of the demands that are put on their own time,” advises Alexander.
Over the years, Alexander has chosen new candidates well. “I feel very lucky because I think my batting average has fairly good; sometimes it’s just an intuitive feeling,” she says.
The desire to please is another trait Alexander and her team look for in a potential travel agent.
“Good agents want to please their customers and they have an innate sense of nurturing,” she says. “Good agents want to take care of it. There is nothing more rewarding for an agent to have somebody write afterward and say, ‘It was the greatest trip and it only would have happened because of you.’ It’s a very personal business, selling luxury travel,” says Alexander, adding that selling premium business travel is also very personal.
From that moment on, it’s important the new travel agent be motivated to deal with every aspect of the business, including the administrative duties of invoicing and collecting payment for the trip and ensuring it was all done properly.
“There are a lot of steps to making a trip happen that are as important as choosing the destination; everything has to be done seamlessly,” says Alexander.
All in all, the best advice is to have realistic expectations the first year after becoming a travel advisor. “It’s really a year of learning from selling and knowing how to turn your skills into success. It doesn’t happen overnight,” she warns.
Another upside of hiring travel agents who have experience in other fields is that they are much more likely to participate in online networking.
Why is that so vital? “My feeling has always been, even before social media, that you’d better wrap your arms very tightly around your best customers because if you don’t, someone is there to take your place,” says Alexander. “Customers are being contacted by e-mail constantly. They don’t have to go out and look for ways to travel because they have many, and there are so many levels of distribution today.”
Bottom line? Getting new customers is important; keeping them is imperative. “Staying in touch with them when they are not traveling is just as important as speaking to them when they are traveling,” Alexander advises.
“I think the newer agents are attuned to the times and they are open to new ideas. They want to explore. I think they have a good sense of marketing; an innate sense of marketing.”
Even if they have a natural tendency as self-promoters, new advisors must develop a strong mailing list so that they can participate in Protravel’s e-mail marketing campaigns. The list can be culled from fellow church members or the families of the classmates at your child’s nursery school.
Once you’ve got the clients and they’ve actually traveled, be sure to follow up with them quickly for their next trip, in fact, consider sending them a welcome-home bouquet of flowers as well as a note to follow through how the trip was.
“This is not a time where a successful travel agent can afford to be anonymous and passively wait for the next trip. You have to be really proactive,” says Alexander. “The more successful agents have those qualities and do that kind of thing.”
With all of the caveats of maintaining a high level of professionalism in developing one’s travel career at Protravel, advisors are also encouraged to travel.
“I absolutely encourage them,” says Alexander. “I also encourage them to stay very informed about product changes.” Other ways in which agents stay updated are via Protravel’s internal newsletter, which is actively updated and sent to everyone within the company. Suppliers also come by Protravel’s offices on a very regular basis all the time and the company’s very busy air department is constantly sending alerts that may impact the client’s experience. “If there is a problem that’s going to take place this afternoon at Munich Airport, we know about it so we can preempt things with the traveler,” says Alexander, who notes that it’s vital for advisors to understand the basics of connecting through large airports in terms of getting from one terminal to the next and understanding what the customer is going through so they can manage their expectations. “Sometimes it’s more important to know of the pitfalls from your own personal experience than to know about the things that go smoothly,” she says.
Input from the Protravel air department could be advice that a flight transfer is a “legal connect,” but that since it’s not with the same carrier, luggage may be misplaced, so more time should be allowed for the switch in flights. In fact, Alexander’s personal policy is to leave plenty of time between carriers she isn’t familiar with.
“I myself just flew from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia through Beijing, and I probably could have made the tighter connection. But it was Mongolian Airlines to China Air, so I ended up taking an earlier one and being in the airport for a couple of extra hours because I did not want to miss my China Air flight. So for myself, I will do that. I am not taking the chance.”
Along those lines, Alexander recommends that advisors travel not as a travel agent but as how people who are not in the business would do so in order to understand what they might be confronted with.
“I also encourage them to stay in hotels. You are not qualified to make a great evaluation of the service and all unless you stay in the place. They should also experience the kinds of places that they go to relate to the kind of customers they have,” she says.
Going forward, Alexander will continue to encourage those considering making a career switch to consider Protravel if they’ve got the traits she is looking for.
“I don’t want to discourage somebody getting out of college at 21 years old from going into the travel industry. But a slightly more experienced person in life is more experienced in handling people, more experienced in travel and more experienced in the other disciplines of understanding the demands on your time and understanding how to speak to people,” she says.
For that reason, individual managers at Protravel around the country are always keeping an eye open for those who might approach them for the opportunity to become a travel advisor. And even though there’s a steady stream of new faces at Protravel, the company doesn’t advertise for openings. “We don’t solicit for new agents. It almost happens by osmosis,” says Alexander. “There is never a week where I am not signing some new agreement for someone being hired and someone associating with us. And within the offices, there is always a little new excitement at seeing new faces,” says Alexander, who makes it a point to personally welcome each new Protravel advisor.
That select group has made a special cut, exhibiting that they have gone far beyond their love for seeing the world. “A lot of people are going to say, ‘Oh, I would love to be selling travel, too,’ ” says Alexander. “But they also have to take the right step and say, ‘And, I am ready to make a commitment to do it.’ ”
Following are five profiles of Protravel advisors who have made the switch from other careers and who are excited to share their experiences:
|Josh Alexander uses his skills as an attorney every day in his new travel career.|
An attorney for nine years, Josh Alexander had always had a passion for traveling the world as well as an interest in the business side of the travel industry. For that reason he’d always felt the life of a travel advisor might be for him.
“I’d always felt like I’d be able to tap into the existing network of my colleagues, friends and associates, not only from my legal background, but from all my other walks of life; those people who weren’t using a travel advisor previously,” he tells Travel Agent magazine.
Alexander says he joined Protravel because of the platforms and support available to him as a new agent, as well as the leadership of [president] Priscilla Alexander and [senior vice president] Andy Pesky. “Protravel mentored me and that really accelerated my learning curve. It brought me to where I am today and to having a really successful book of business,” he says.
Now in his second year with Protravel, Alexander (no relation to Priscilla Alexander) says that the skills he developed as an attorney have been readily transferred to his new life as a luxury travel advisor.
“An essential skill for an attorney is to really know how to listen to your clients, to pay attention to details. Listening to what a client wants and paying attention to details really make all the difference.” Knowing how to manage a client’s expectations is also vital in law and in selling travel, he says.
His legal prowess also assists him when it comes to working with suppliers and reading the fine print in contracts for big group events and destination weddings.
“Knowing how to read a contract and having negotiating skills are the things I’ve used the most, almost every day,” says Alexander. “I’m using the things that I used every day as an attorney, I’m just using them now to make people happy.”
As a travel advisor he’s putting in more hours a week than he ever did as a lawyer, “but it doesn’t seem that way because the days fly by. You’re dealing with people’s discretionary income and you’re providing them with experiences that are very special and important to them, whether it’s a honeymoon, a destination wedding, or they’re traveling with their family. That part of it is very exciting and satisfying to me.”
Alexander’s travel business is focused on high-end luxury leisure travel, and he has several small boutique corporate clients he’s developed through leisure travel relationships. He also personally knows several people who have gotten married recently for whom he’d done robust honeymoon trips and destination weddings.
He’s active on Twitter, which he uses to interact with clients and to stay relevant with vendors and suppliers. He uses Facebook to be in touch with people from high schools, colleges, law schools and even sleepaway camps.
“I don’t rely on Facebook for leads, but it definitely has led to bona fide bookings. Some of the clients I’ve become reacquainted with via Facebook have also been a great source of referral business,” he says, noting that he doesn’t plan on using advertising as a means to garner new clients since he finds it better to rely on firsthand referrals to build a luxury travel business.
Alexander envisions having a team some day to help him service his clients. Selling travel will never be a numbers game, however. He plans instead to “continue designing luxury itineraries and special moments for people.”
|Randi Comras was in marketing prior to becoming a travel advisor.|
At the age of 45, making the switch from a career of advertising and marketing was frightening to Randi Comras, but she hasn’t looked back.
“I’d always had a passion for the art of setting up a certain trip for friends and family. I love the challenge of getting the best place and finding the best hotel. So really I would say that I’ve been a travel agent for many, many years without being paid for it,” she tells Travel Agent.
She switched careers after sitting herself down one day and asking herself what she was doing with her life. “I said, ‘I’m not happy with this part-time job I’m doing and marketing is just so boring. I really just want to love what I’m doing.’ ”
After a friend introduced her to Tony Shepherd, COO of Protravel, she was on her way.
“What’s amazing about Protravel is they take people without books of business or clients. They’re willing to mentor us,” says Comras.
The transition was challenging (she had to learn Sabre), but soon Comras had all the resources and tools she needed to get moving. The best part was that she had a mentor in the form of Protravel’s Linda Schuller in the Roseland office, who has been a travel advisor for 35 years.
Priscilla Alexander, president of the company, has counseled her as well. “When I met Priscilla for the first time in New York, she was so inspirational,” says Comras. “She’s definitely one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and she has the ability to turn on a dime. With all the changes that are happening within the industry, she keeps Protravel really, really fresh.”
Her client list, first comprising friends and family, has grown rapidly to include high-end leisure travelers booking five-star hotels and luxury experiences. At least half Comras has never met, since they’re coming from word of mouth and referrals. Most enjoyable is that if she has a question about anything, she can send an e-mail out to the Protravel network and receive 50 responses within minutes.
When she has time to begin promotional efforts, Comras will use Facebook and Twitter. “They are absolutely the wave of the future for marketing,” she says.
Comras hopes to be able to travel more so she can bring her experiences back to her clients. “I love the art of planning the perfect trip. I don’t like to leave any stone unturned; with me, everything is planned to detail. I love this job. This has really been an amazing journey for me, much more than I ever anticipated,” she says of her new career.
San Diego, CA
|Patrick McCormick finds that communication skills he learned in the military are useful in his new role as luxury travel advisor.|
Patrick McCormick spent 10 years in active duty in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant commander and a fighter pilot. He flew F18
Hornets in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He ended up moving out to the West Coast stationed in San Diego flying with the Marines where he became an instructor.
“My primary role was to teach guys to land on an aircraft carrier and to teach them air-to-ground-ordinance delivery. Dropping bombs would be the simpler explanation,” he tells Travel Agent.
Evolving into a travel advisor wasn’t a straight shot for McCormick. “I’d done what I wanted to do in the military so it was a good time to leave.” he says. He tried business school but found after one semester that it wasn’t for him. “It wasn’t fulfilling. The path it was leading me down wasn’t anything I could envision myself doing. After being a pilot for awhile, being in a small office job probably wasn’t the best bet,” he says.
He turned to his mother-in-law, who had been in the travel agency business for more than 25 years and who had just switched over to Protravel International when McCormick was seeking a career direction.
She told him to consider a career as a travel advisor.
“You travel pretty extensively on your own and you’ve traveled extensively with the military. This could be something that you are interested in doing,” she said.
Three years after his “aha” moment, McCormick says his life as fighter-pilot-turned-travel-advisor is paying off and that having the connections of Protravel behind him has been fantastic. Its tools and technology have been especially useful but it’s the culture at the company he favors the most.
“If anyone needs help with anything, there are people that will help them,” he says. “That ethos lines up well with my military background, where there’s a strong culture of service and teamwork,” he says.
McCormick works from home but is attached to Protravel’s San Diego office, where he’s frequently found networking with suppliers who are visiting. His book of business comes through family and friends and via his wife’s business as an attorney. Serving on the board of his homeowner’s association, as president of a shooting club and being on the board of directors of a high-end automobile club, have also added to his client roster.
His clients, who also come via referral, are affluent: “They are willing to pay for the knowledge and the service and they also recognize when something has value as opposed to someone who’s just strictly looking at dollars and doesn’t see the service aspect,” says McCormick, whose background has helped him form the discipline for being a good travel advisor.
“Military skills translate into just about any endeavor,” he says. “The military is big on logistics. We have a saying, ‘Bombs on target, on time’ which touches on everything having to work properly.”
Being very regimented and detail-oriented has certainly helped on the travel advisor side of things as have his communication skills.
“In the military, if something is going wrong we tend to want to communicate that and to fix the problem because there’s no real drive to keep it a secret. Communication is vital when it comes to travel as well because there are going to be hiccups along the way, but it’s how they get dealt with and how they get communicated to people that’s important. Ultimately, that’s going to determine if someone decides that they were served well or not,” says McCormick.
|Stacy Robinson’s business acumen was sharpened in her past experiences in marketing.|
Finding herself in a travel advisor career wasn’t too farfetched for Stacy Robinson, whose grandmother had a travel agency in New York and whose aunt works with Protravel International in Manhattan. She had also traveled as she was growing up and continued to do so as an adult, planning trips to Brazil or Japan, destinations that required a lot of knowledge. With her family background, Robinson always knew she could call on a travel advisor for assistance.
She chose a career in corporate marketing and advertising, but always felt something was missing. “I needed to change to something I could really feel excited about,” Robinson tells Travel Agent. “I wanted to give clients more of a personal lifetime experience rather than just a business-to-business experience. I wanted to do something a little more heartfelt.”
A move to Chicago finally gave Robinson the chance to join Protravel, where she works in its main office every day. “This was exactly where I wanted to go with my career and my life,” she said at the time.
Three years into travel advising, Robinson is most excited about letting her generation of luxury travelers know that she is in their corner. “I want them to know that there is someone here who can help them and that it’s not going to break the bank,” she says.
Friends of friends and contacts of people she knows comprise her client list, which grows from word of mouth and from Facebook efforts.
Joining Protravel gave Robinson the best backing she could have had, she says. “They put together a beautiful marketing piece for me when I started that I was able to send out. It’s an honor to be able to pass the benefits that I can get through Protravel on to my clients, who wouldn’t have been able to get them on their own.”
The marketing skills from her past helped her to develop skills that now enable her to reach out to potential clients and to sharpen her business acumen. She knows, for example, how to update financial spreadsheets.
Growing her business won’t be difficult with the backing she has and she’s particularly inspired by the leadership at Protravel. “Priscilla Alexander is such a visionary,” says Robinson. “She is on the ball with everything, particularly with getting the next generation involved and with bringing in new clientele. When she has a certain idea of what she wants, she makes it happen. I’m so happy that she found me and that I found her and all the great people I work with in the Chicago office at Protravel because they really brought me to the next level,” says Robinson.
San Francisco, CA
|Vikram Seshadri is using Twitter and LinkedIn to grow his client roster.|
Vikram Seshadri journeyed the world when he was young. Born in India, raised in Indonesia, he and his family traversed Asia and Europe regularly, instilling in him the legacy of a lifelong wanderlust. Fast forward to 1999, when an ad for a public relations representative in Los Angeles landed him a job that brought him up close with high-end hotels such as Auberge Resorts, the Lodge at Torrey Pines, the Four Seasons Florence and Peninsula Hotels.
Being in the business was enjoyable, but Seshadri was stressed whenever he picked up a travel magazine, fearing that his top clients were not included in the destination features found inside. He also found public relations to be an unquantifiable type of job in terms of measuring success.
What he did enjoy was working on bespoke itineraries for hotel visits for journalists. “Having writers come back from their trips and tell me, ‘I had the most amazing trip. The flights were flawless; the transfers were great; the suggested itinerary was exactly what I needed,’ ” he said.
A move from Los Angeles to San Francisco encouraged Seshadri to try something else. He consulted with Mickey Weill, a vice president with Protravel, but hesitant to take the plunge, Seshadri tried his hand as a corporate travel agent with a different agency where he felt he could hone his skills in an office environment and earn a steady income. Along the way, he realized he wanted more room for creativity.
Protravel still welcomed him and four months later, he’s enjoying the transition, working out of the Sherman Oaks Protravel office independently. His former public relations firm is his client, as are some of the connections he’s made on LinkedIn. Through friends, he’s made additional connections with high-net-worth individuals.
A request for a cruise to the Greek Isles for a wealthy couple was Seshadri’s first big opportunity. He immediately reached out to the Protravel network and received advice from five cruise experts who told him his options. His clients selected an 11-day Silversea cruise that sailed from Venice to Istanbul. When they decided they wanted to do pre- and post-cruises, Seshadri turned to research those travel magazines he had once picked up in fear.
“So it’s like coming full circle,” he says. When his client returned from the cruise, she told him, “I was a little nervous about dealing with a new agent, but I am so glad I used you. It made me so happy.”
Seshadri has created a hash tag on Facebook and Twitter called “ViksTips,” where he posts travel advice. He’ll use his public relations prowess to launch his business independently, but Seshadri says he’ll always refuel with the power that the Protravel family brings to his business.
“I value that camaraderie and the team spirit at Protravel where you are your own boss, and you are your own business person. But everybody feels like they are there to support you and support each other and I think that’s why people stay in this company. I plan to stay a long time because of that,” says Seshadri.