In our continuing series on how the industry is dealing with the recession, Michelle Mangio, the home-based agent/owner of Attleboro, MA-based Magical Escapes, shares her thoughts.
HBTA: What are you doing now to take advantage of the downturn?
Mangio: Now is really the time to build better relationships with existing clients, and really get out of the office (or house) and get involved in the community and make your presence known.
I've been meaning to do more consumer events, but have never had the time to get out and talk to the businesses and vendors that I'd like to partner with (such as restaurants, wine shops, the local library) to make arrangements. Now I'm taking the time to do that, and have already established two relationships to begin doing regular consumer events. I'm attending networking events, getting involved in the community and speaking with businesses in my local area about establishing a relationship—such as putting business cards, flyers and brochures in bridal shops, ski shops and the like.
I'm reaching out to my suppliers and arranging to meet with them to discuss marketing ideas, how to find the best matches between my clients and their products and how to find new clients.
I'm taking the time to improve my education, finally doing those webinars, CLIA certification classes and Travel Institute courses I've been meaning to.
HBTA: Are you focusing on using your down time to educate yourself?
Mangio: Most definitely! There are a lot of destinations out there, and a lot of different products. Now is the time to finish my certifications (such as earning the "Certified" in some of my Travel Institute DS & LS Specialist designations and completing my ACC), to brush up on some supplier product knowledge and certifications and to get out there and see the destinations I'm selling. As we all know, there are some great travel deals—we as travel agents should be taking advantage of them ourselves to get out and see the destinations, and then come back to tell our clients about them.
HBTA: Are you using it to gain a competitive advantage while others are going into hibernation?
Mangio: Yes. Even without a mega marketing budget, there are plenty of things I can do to get out and gain a competitive advantage. Getting out and being seen, having my name in front of my clients, is all important. Focus on being relevant—providing a newsletter with important tips and advice, destination info, ways to get the best value, rather than just bombarding my clients with sales and deals and special offers. Everyone is doing that, and frankly, clients become blind to it. Newsletters, not special deals, are the way to go. This allows a customer to get to know me, gives me the opportunity to share my knowledge and stories with them, and demonstrates my expertise, so that when they are ready to travel, they'll remember me—and know I'm the best one to handle their travel arrangements. Just sharing special deals with them doesn't "prove" my worth; they can do that themselves on the Internet. Furthermore, just sending out special deals that aren't relevant doesn't establish a relationship.
HBTA: How do you market during a downturn?
Mangio: It's really important to track your campaigns so that you know what is working and isn't, so you can stop wasting money on what's not working and focus on what is. If you've already been doing that, you're already one step ahead.
There are lots of low-cost ways to market. Consumer events do not have to be expensive wine-and-dine affairs at a restaurant or hotel. Contact some of your local businesses to see who might want to work with you. Most of them are looking for ways to drive more business, and partnering can be profitable for both. Approach them with that message, and they will be more likely to share the expense with you. Even local coffee shops and sandwhich shops can be great places—and since it draws potential customers in, many businesses may be very happy to offer you space at no cost and even provide free or reduced-cost beverages and food.
Do newsletters, either by mail or by e-mail. Send cards to your clients on special occasions or just because—they'll remember you all the more for it. Get involved in your local community, whether through volunteering or attending local events. Remind your clients that in these tough times, now more than ever, they deserve a vacation—to take a break, to get a fresh perspective, to remind themselves that it's not all doom and gloom. Furthermore, it's a great time to reconnect with loved ones and to create some great memories; we certainly need more of these in a downturn!
Keep busy, and keep involved. Send press releases out for everything you do (and make it relevant!). You might not always get picked up by the newspapers, but if you do, it's effectively "free advertising." And in many ways, it's better than free.
Newspapers, magazines and other advertisers are also hurting for business, so it never hurts to ask if they have special offers. Many newspapers, for example, have special deals for small businesses—these are usually printing on a day with the lowest circulation, but because fewer advertisers are there, you really stand out from the crowd.
Above all, don't give up marketing. If you stop, people will forget you. It's important to keep your name in front of clients so that when the economy rebounds, they know who to call when they're ready to book their vacation.
HBTA: How do you reach the customer who is receiving a barrage of deal offers?
Mangio: First off, don't send them special offers. At least not initially. Everyone is doing it, and no one is reading them.
Start by offering a newsletter. Talk to your clients—share your insights, your knowledge and your own travel stories. Give tips and advice. This establishes a relationship with your clients; they get to know you, and you stand out from the crowd. You can include one or two offers in this newsletter—make them relevant to what you are talking about, but focus on establishing that relationship. When a client responds to engage you, that is the time to start asking those questions and mentioning the special deals. If you just send out deal-alert e-mails, it's likely to get deleted or sent to spam.
If you already have a relationship, make the deals relevant—places they want to go, or destinations they love to return to. You know your clients best. But don't send mass e-mails blasted out to your client base. Each week, pick a certain number of clients from your database who you believe will best respond, and then personally create an e-mail or direct-mail piece just for them and send it. You'll get a much better response.
Send them a holiday card, or birthday, anniversary or other special card. Thank them for their business. Even sending a note reminding them you are here can go a long way.
Don't just be one of the crowd—you have to stand out. If everyone is blasting special deals, do something different.