2014 Survival Guide for Travel Advisors

From tackling new challenges and perennial problems to taking advantage of hot trends, Travel Agent breaks down what you need to know to stay successful in 2014.

RELATED: Travel Agent's Biggest Forecasts for 2014

The Challenge: Civil unrest around the globe

While natural disasters have always been a concern for travelers, civil unrest has made headlines in popular tourist destinations in recent years. Egypt’s tourism numbers dropped precipitously following the Arab Spring, and protests in the streets earlier this year also made the country seem unstable and dangerous. More recently, political protests in Ukraine made headlines and temporarily shut down the Kiev Airport for a few hours. The United States did not issue any kind of travel warning or advisory for the country, but the publicity was not helpful for Ukraine’s tourism industry.

The Solution: Awareness and common sense

Andrey Zakharenko, founder of Russian Connections and Always Travel, notes the recent protests in Ukraine. “I’m not hearing much concern,” he says, “but people are asking. No one wants to travel to a country with instability or risk an airport closing.” When arranging travel to any destination that might experience civil unrest, Zakharenko advises getting travel insurance and making sure all travelers know where their local embassy or consulate is. On-location tour operators can also be very helpful, he adds: “They can always monitor the situation on the ground and decide where to go day-by-day. And yes, avoid protest-ridden areas. You don’t want to be involved in a statement.”

For those concerned about traveling to Egypt after the country’s recent protests, Mohamed Hegazy, director of the Egyptian Tourist Authority, also encourages visitors to use a local tour guide to avoid problematic areas. In order to promote travel to Egypt’s most popular tourism destinations, Hegazy adds, the Authority’s website has live video feeds from Sharm el Sheikh. “If travelers want to know if they should go [to Egypt], they can log on and see live footage,” he says. The Authority will soon have another live feed from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and Hegazy has expressed hope that the country will get a more positive image in the media. 

Tour operators, of course, are also concerned about how the destinations are perceived. Jennifer Halboth, director of channel marketing at the Globus family of brands, says that travelers will often feel safer on group tours than FITs. “We won’t put them in harm’s way,” she says. “We can offer comfort and security.”

“Avoid protest-ridden areas,” says Andrey Zakharenko, founder of Russian Connections, but if necessary use on-site tour operators to “monitor the situation on the ground and decide where to go day-by-day.”

“Avoid protest-ridden areas,” says Andrey Zakharenko, founder of Russian Connections, but if necessary use on-site tour operators to “monitor the situation on the ground and decide where to go day-by-day.” 

Last month, G Adventures announced that it would operate its full program of trips in Egypt for 2014. Itineraries would be “slightly altered” to use planes instead of rail travel while overnight trains remain temporarily out of service. “We have an operational office in Cairo, and team members on the ground who are monitoring the situation daily,” John Warner, managing director of G Adventures, said in a statement, noting that the country’s top attractions have few crowds, and many communities in Egypt rely on tourism for local income. 

RELATED: Top Travel Tips

The Challenge: The omnipresent Internet and the proliferation of apps

While the pendulum has begun to swing back in favor of human agents over OTAs, the Internet can still seem like competition at best, and overwhelming at worst. Meanwhile, apps on smart phones, as Russian Connection’s Zakharenko, puts it, “are the new normal.”

The Solution: Take advantage of what’s out there

The Internet and all it offers can help or hurt agents depending on who uses what tool, and how. Social media, for example, has proven an effective method of networking with clients and other industry professionals. Jonathan Epstein of Celebrated Experiences said that he has found guides, restaurants and unique experiences through Twitter. “Instagram allows hotels to share up-to-the-minute pics to keep clients informed of updates visually,” he added. 

Daniela Harrison, a travel consultant at Avenues of the World Travel, uses social media to keep in touch with other agents and suppliers, and also to keep up with the latest trends. “We have some amazing discussion forums and a great support network, especially on Facebook!” she said. “For my clients, we use email marketing, travel apps, electronic destination guides, e-docs, travel blogs and much more. Through Signature Travel Network, we have some amazing technology tools.”

Zakharenko suggests that, rather than combat the technology, agents should embrace it. If agents download travel apps on their own phones and recommend the best to their clients, the client will have all the more reason to trust that the agent has his or her best interests at heart. “I’ve used Amadeus, and they have a Check My Trip app where I can store client information,” he says. The client can then download the app onto their own phones and use it to communicate with the agent, and vice versa. “I can put in comments and update them on their flights, hotel and tours. I can...see where my clients are and when they’re coming back. I can monitor their transportation and figure out who I need to contact.”

Daniela Harrison, Avenues of the World Travel: “We have some amazing discussion forums and a great support network — especially on Facebook.”

Daniela Harrison, Avenues of the World Travel: “We have some amazing discussion forums and a great support network — especially on Facebook.”

A brand new travel app was just launched that seeks to connect travelers with their agents. TripScope is a “B2B2C” travel app created by a travel agent for agents to provide itinerary information to their clients. On the app’s website, agents can input the logistics of clients’ itineraries, which then populate to the clients’ smart phone. “The traveler has all the documents, vouchers, and flights in one place, and all the information can be changed by the agent on the go,” Zakharenko says. “It updates instantly.” For example, he adds, an agent can recommend a local restaurant and provide the venue’s phone number and directions. If a client needs to change something on the itinerary, he or she can email the agent and have it automatically updated.

The Challenge: Preparing for the sports tourism rush and avoiding the pitfalls therein 

This year is poised to be a big one for sports tourism as the 2014 Winter Olympics will be hosted in Russia, while Brazil gets set to welcome millions of soccer fans for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. So there may be some extra clients heading to Brazil and Russia in 2014, but even if you are already a specialist in either or both of these destinations, booking a sporting event is a whole different animal. For example, how should agents combat such obstacles as price gouging and visas?

Ryan Mielke, Regency Travel, Fort Lauderdale: “When you have an event like the World Cup or Olympics, availability is only going to go down, which will drive up the prices.”

Ryan Mielke, Regency Travel, Fort Lauderdale: “When you have an event like the World Cup or Olympics, availability is only going to go down, which will drive up the prices.”

The Solution: Take advantage of preferred suppliers and get the ball rolling on bookings as far in advance as possible. 

Clients who are attending these events have usually dreamed of this trip for many years, so they are typically prepared for the long process. Start with collecting the proper documentation (passports, visas, etc.) then go from there. Keep in mind that visa services might take much longer than normal.

“If it’s possible, always try to apply in person for your visas,” says Ryan Mielke of Regency Travel in Fort Lauderdale, FL. “If you have to use a visa service do some research online beforehand, read firsthand reviews via Yelp and other websites, and avoid Travel Document Systems at all costs. Once you have approval from all governments involved, start booking airfare and hotels ASAP. On normal trips, you might see the price of an airline ticket or hotel vary for months at a time. It could be $200 more one week, then $100 less the next; but the one thing to keep in mind is that these prices are mostly driven by availability, and when you have an event like the World Cup or Olympics, availability is only going to go down, which will drive up the prices.”

Agents should also take advantage of relationships they might have with a certain hotel or brand, Mielke adds. “Ask for discounted pricing, upgrades, extra amenities, etc. You might not be able to get the price lower, but if you can manage free daily breakfast and an upgrade you will look like a star to your client. It’s a little harder with inflated airfares, but the best advice I can give is book early. There is no budging when it comes to their prices. Start tracking prices early for a particular route; if you work with a GDS you can usually see real-time availability.”

Jean Newman Glock, JNG Worldwide: “As travelers reach for the more and more remote, the expertise and guidance of an expert travel advisor has become more critical.”

Jean Newman Glock, JNG Worldwide: “As travelers reach for the more and more remote, the expertise and guidance of an expert travel advisor has become more critical.”

The biggest obstacle when booking a trip around a sporting event, says Mielke, may be change fees. “The typical change fee for an international ticket is around $300, plus any difference in fare,” he says. “If you book well in advance you may get lucky with a decent price, but if you have to change your date two weeks prior, you could be faced with thousands of dollars in fare difference. If you think your plans may change, look into buying a flexible airline ticket, and do not pre-pay your hotel. Also invest in a good travel insurance plan, and be sure to purchase it so it covers any pre-existing conditions, and think about adding the ‘cancel for any reason’ clause.”

The Challenge: Exotic destinations are perceived as not being easily accessible.

The Solution: Alert your clients to the growing number of places that have, or will soon have, a lower barrier to entry for the inexperienced traveler.

“It’s all about airline access,” says Erina Pindar, managing director, SmartFlyer. “It’s as simple as that. The more carriers that are familiar to U.S. travelers, which head to destinations with as few layovers as possible, the more accessible these exotic, and appealing, destinations become to the mass market.”

“United is starting three nonstop per week next summer from San Francisco to Chengdu, China,” Pindar continues. “The Middle East carriers continue to add dots to their U.S. route maps. Boston is getting a daily Emirates flight service and Los Angeles is welcoming Etihad in 2014. Both will allow smoother connections from those markets through the United Arab Emirates to East Africa.”

Haiti is an example of one of the more exotic markets that is becoming more accessible thanks to airlift. In December, JetBlue Airways launched daily nonstop service both from New York and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood to Port-au-Prince

Also in the Caribbean, St. Vincent and the Grenadines will have a new international airport next year to go along with several new hotel openings that should open the destination to a larger group of travelers. The Argyle International Airport will be able to accommodate jets as large as the Boeing 747-400s, and the terminal building will be able to handle 1.5 million passengers per day. 

Aeromexico is opening up Mexico’s west coast to the U.S. eastern market. Flights to Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta will launch from New York City as of January 16 and 18. 

Over in Europe, Austrian Airlines will expand summer capacity to Vienna by more than 60 percent from its three U.S. gateways. It will add five weekly flights from Newark in addition to its daily flights from JFK. Service from Chicago will expand from five flights weekly to daily flights, as well. 

Experts have said that Asia is sorely in need of regional carriers, which will open up the destination. Last month, Nantong Tongzhou Bay Aviation placed an order for 30 Q400 aircraft, which it will use to launch its new regional venture, Sutong Airlines. This is part of China’s five-year plan that calls for the expansion of regional airlines. By 2015, Sutong Airlines plans to launch operations carrying between 70 and 86 passengers on short-haul routes.

Jean Newman Glock of JNG Worldwide says that for many, the exotic is already becoming commonplace. “Travelers who may not have visited Greece, once the standard world traveler stop, are cruising the Mekong, visiting the more remote temples in Siem Reap, and meeting the orangutans in Sepilok, Borneo. The trans-Siberian Express is still a little exotic, but not as much so as the new train journey from Istanbul to Tehran. All because travel to these destinations has become easier, tourist infrastructures have improved, and travelers are more savvy and adventurous. As travelers reach for the more and more remote, the expertise and guidance of an expert travel advisor has become more critical. And that expertise needs to move beyond selling hotels to selling the entire destination [including] relevant health and safety issues.”

The Challenge: Reduced air service to popular destinations

Air issues are nothing new but when it comes to certain regions, mainly the Caribbean, air issues are becoming more problematic based solely on the sheer number of flights available now. Many airlines are reducing service to the Caribbean, and in turn have been causing headaches for agents who specialized in the region, especially those with savvy clients that have toured the bigger islands with the most adequate airlift and are now looking for something a little off the beaten path. For example, when American Airlines cut some of its flights to St. Lucia earlier this year, connections from a lot of cities to Miami became nearly impossible to pull out in the same day, giving agents one big headache to start the year with.

The Solution: “You have to get creative with routing.”

So says Caroline Fridley Bracewell of Easy Escapes Travel in New York. “Coming from major cities, it’s a bit easier since you can send people non-stop through San Juan and then on Liat, etc., to other Caribbean islands. From smaller cities, though, it’s trickier, and a lot of times the only option is to either have clients overnight somewhere or have two stops in each direction.” 

“One thing you can do with the overnight though is to sell it as sort of a two-part honeymoon, with that first night somewhere luxurious in Miami, and also sell it with the bonus of breaking up the travel time and being able to get into their final destination earlier in the day. But oftentimes, it does come down to selling more of the areas with simpler/better flight times.”

The Challenge: Availability issues force agents to book almost two years out.

The Solution: Hook up with the right suppliers to ensure easy access to destinations. 

“Access is the key here, as well as having great partners,” says Michael Holtz, president, SmartFlyer. “It’s all about knowing where to go and who to ask.”

“Determine who your preferred suppliers are, and then sell them as much as possible,” says John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Leisure Group and Vacation.com. “There’s a reason why they’re preferred in the first place; you already trust them to take good care of your clients with a great product and they pay you a guaranteed — and often higher — commission for selling them. By instilling this level of discipline, you’ll not only be able to maximize commission levels, but you’ll also be able to leverage your relationship in resolving problems with them in the rare event something doesn’t go as planned.” 

The Challenge: The growing necessity of charging fees

The question surrounding whether or not to charge fees for services is ever-present in the industry. Some are all for it, others have their reasons not to, and then there are those who are still unsure what the right path is for them. Some agents shy away from it because they are afraid they will lose the client.

The Solution: Show your clients the value you are giving them for their money.

Confidence is key, too. If you want to charge fees but haven’t yet because you are uncomfortable asking, practice saying it to yourself. The more confident you are, the more clients will respect that this is the way you are doing business, and they will see the value in giving you their business. 

“We recommend that all travel consultants charge service fees for their time, expertise and the value they bring to the consumer,” says Signature EVP Ignacio Maza.

“Never, ever be afraid to place a value on the incredible expertise and counsel you provide to your clients by charging a fee for your services,” says Nexion president Jackie Friedman. “If you truly believe passionately in who you are and the amazing travel experiences you’re able to provide to your clients, then you should always feel confident about asking your clients to compensate you for your time and effort.”

The Challenge: Negative views about travel protection and their rationale for not purchasing it.

The Solution: Arm yourself with solid, fact-based reasons to show clients why they need travel insurance. 

You might start by checking out Travel Guard’s online list of Top 10 Reasons to Buy Travel Insurance at www.travelguard.com. Prepare to respond to common excuses clients use in saying “no” to purchasing insurance or Medevac/assistance services. Here are a few typical excuses. 

* Nothing bad will happen on my vacation: One helpful statistic comes from MedjetAssist, a global air-medical transportation membership program offering Medevac services; it says one in 30 people will become hospitalized while traveling abroad. While the odds may seem low, agents might ask clients if they could afford $50,000-$100,000 in medical evacuation costs without jeopardizing their financial future.

Sheri Machat, senior vice president, MH Ross Travel Insurance Services, says recent tornadoes and hurricanes have brought the need for insurance to the forefront — and have become a key factor in consumers’ decisions to buy travel insurance. Agents might also provide compelling experiential stories from other clients (without naming names, of course).

* I’m already covered by medical insurance: Many seniors believe they’re covered everywhere by Medicare. Others say they have medical insurance that covers them abroad. In most cases, they’re wrong. “Clients can begin to see a decrease in coverage as soon as they leave their state and more so if they are leaving the country,” says Carlos Cividanes, executive vice president of industry relations, TravelSafe Insurance

“Higher deductibles, lower percentage covered and insufficient evacuation amounts are all an issue,” says Amber Blecker, owner, CruiseOne, Aurora, CO. Urge the client to call his or her insurer or Medicare and ask questions about what the coverage entails, if any, based on the trip they’re taking.

* I’m a loyal customer; my travel supplier will assist: Generally, suppliers will not take responsibility for disrupted travel plans, delayed flights, missed connections, cancellation for guest illness or other unexpected issues. “The supplier is in the business of providing travel,” Blecker says. “They recommend insurance and have no reason to assist if you choose not to purchase coverage.”

Stress to clients that supplier policies may not allow customer service representatives to stretch or ignore a policy for compassionate reasons when a trip interruption occurs and the client has no insurance.

* I’m already covered for medical emergencies on my credit card: Most clients don’t realize that “most of these plans require the client to carry their full medical cost on their credit card balance until the claim is settled,” says Cividanes. And unlike third-party travel insurance, it’s not an upfront guarantee to the hospital. The client also takes on the responsibility for the debt until the claim is deemed valid. 

* I’m healthy, so I don’t need insurance: “Even healthy people have accidents and medical issues,” Blecker says, noting that “active people tend to do more activities and could fall and injure themselves, while appendicitis can happen at any age.” 

Sheri Machat, senior VP, MH Ross Travel Insurance Services, suggests sharing compelling experiential stories from other clients (anonymously) to encourage them to purchase travel insurance.

Sheri Machat, senior VP, MH Ross Travel Insurance Services, suggests sharing compelling experiential stories from other clients (anonymously) to encourage them to purchase travel insurance.

“Medical evacuations can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from a remote location,” adds Alan Josephs, chief marketing officer, Allianz Global Assistance, while Isaac Cymrot, vice president, sales and industry relations, Travel Insured International, tells agents to speak up confidently and don’t wait too late in the process to talk about insurance. If clients decline, follow up to protect their vacation investment.

Trend: Redefining Luxury

The definition of luxury travel is changing. Specifically, the luxury client is being redefined. Sure, the one factor a luxury client will always have is more money than most, but the attitude that these clients now carry with them on a trip is no different than someone with a much lower salary. 

At Ultra Luxury Exchange in June, which was produced by our sister publication, Luxury Travel Advisor, Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club, said luxury and value are defined differently by people depending on their needs and desires. He also said his own idea of a luxurious vacation is going fishing with his oldest son.

The bottom line: Whether you can afford it or not, clients want every dollar to count. They want to know that their money is going toward something unique and hard to find.

Lia Batkin, In the Know Experiences: To provide insider tips luxury travelers seek, “You need to know that place/activity/passion point inside and out.”

Lia Batkin, In the Know Experiences: To provide insider tips luxury travelers seek, “You need to know that place/activity/passion point inside and out.”  

“I really noticed it with my last group on the Danube; travelers got bored with seeing yet another monastery after hours and such,” says Daniela Harrison of Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, AZ. “But they were stoked when we went to the wine cellar, and they made us shake all the bottles in rotation and put them to work. It was all about the hands-on, new experience and skill they learned. I noticed the same in Amsterdam this spring when we made cheese by hand. People still talk about that day.”

Hugh Sheppard of Encore Travel - Luxury Travel Concierge, Urbandale, IA, says the evolving definition of luxury is nothing new and something we can expect to read about in future Survival Guides as well.

“Today, it’s more about a unique authentic experience rather than fancy hotels,” he says. “A client may be met by a local artist and spend the day painting the sights of Sorrento, or maybe a local PhD scholar will walk through the streets of Bangkok discussing the history and architecture with the client. Perhaps a guide will take the clients’ family into the rainforest and spend the day with a local tribe in Cambodia learning local traditions and culture. The travel advisor needs to be creative in developing a truly unique itinerary for today’s luxury traveler.”

Lia Batkin, co-founder of In the Know Experiences in New York, says the only way to pull off the insider-type trips is to have a solid relationship with your suppliers. “You need to know that place/activity/passion point inside and out,” she says. “You need to have experienced it for yourself multiple times. This will not only allow you to have the best on-ground contacts to assist, but you then are able to customize everything to exactly what the client will love as it’s [often] the small details that make it a true ‘unique experience.’” 

Trend: Celebration Travel

While everyone will be watching Rio for the World Cup and Sochi for the Winter Olympics, other countries will be hosting multi-month events throughout 2014 that are great incentives for travel. 

Scotland, for example, is bringing back its year-long Homecoming Scotland. In addition to the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup, Homecoming’s activities will celebrate Scottish culture and heritage for people with Scot ancestry — or who are just fans.

Daniela Harrison of Avenues of the World Travel says she has received many requests for travel to Scotland in 2014: “A lot of people feel they missed out on not attending the gathering in Ireland, so they really want to partake on the celebrations for the homecoming. I have a few Celtic Groups that will be traveling for a whole month.”

Other big events Harrison says are attracting her clients include Venice’s Carnival (“People are saving up for years to get the right costumes”) and the NoWhere festival, a Spanish arts-focused gathering inspired by the Burning Man event in the U.S. 

2014 also marks the centenary of World War I, and several countries will host memorials. Flanders, especially, will host events commemorating the war and its dead throughout the year. (Visit www.flandersfields1418.com for details.) While these events are significant, Harrison doesn’t believe that they will be a primary reason for travel to Europe. 

“How we incorporate the events into our clients’ travel really varies a lot,” Harrison said. “We have a few clients that are traveling solely to partake in an event.” For example, many people want to go to Ireland in March to take part in the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. “We always add some extra time to explore other parts of the country, but the primary reason to go is for the holiday. I am working with a couple right now that has always wanted to go [to Scotland]. The Homecoming was just the right appeal for them to travel [in 2014], rather than at a later time. If I can arrange it, I will plan their overnights according to local festivals and other events, so they can immerse themselves fully.” 

New Air and Hotel Taxes

In 2014, travelers flying out of British airports will see a rise in the already controversial Air Passenger Duty. The tax is set to rise for the sixth time in as many years, and will charge passengers hundreds of pounds in extra fees on top of their airline tickets. (Other governments have dropped these fees in order to promote tourism.) As the tax is based on distance and the size of the aircraft, it may be less expensive for U.S. travelers to take a quick flight to Ireland (which recently abolished its own aviation tax) or Paris and then fly home from there. (Note: This tax does not apply to incoming flights.) 

Airports aren’t the only ones raising prices: As of press time, Berlin was set to impose an extra 5 percent tax per night on hotel stays for a maximum of 21 nights in January. Good to know: The tax does not apply to business travelers. 

Consortia Chime In

We reached out to the major consortia groups in the industry for some tips on how to make 2014 as successful as it can be. 

Marketing: “Make your customer database a top priority in the New Year,” says Ignacio Maza, executive vice president, Signature Travel Network. “Focus on generating business from repeat clients, referrals, prospects and re-activating clients in your database who did not buy travel from you in 2013. For your repeat clients, send a personal, simple note of recognition and appreciation. Meet with 10 of your top clients, in person, to thank them for their business and tell them about great new travel experiences that might be of interest to them.”

Signature EVP Ignacio Maza: “Focus on generating business from repeat clients, referrals, prospects” and re-activating dormant accounts.

Signature EVP Ignacio Maza: “Focus on generating business from repeat clients, referrals, prospects” and re-activating dormant accounts.

“Agents should strive to develop customers for life, by taking the time to truly get to know them as people,” says Nexion President Jackie Friedman. “Those deep relationships result in customer loyalty and the potential for new referrals. Avoid indifference, where the customer does not view the agent as playing a significant role in the overall experience.”

Learning and Development: “Visit at least one new destination in 2014,” says Maza. “Upon your return, send a letter to your clients with photos from your trip to start a conversation. Attend one new travel-related conference or seminar in 2014 to learn about new products, new experiences and new destinations.”

Sales: “Agents who model their business around land should focus on no more than three suppliers, depending on the vacation, and become a good customer to those suppliers,” says Joe Jiffo, vice president, business development, Ensemble Travel Group. “This will help in the future for earning higher commissions, marketing dollars and possible year-end incentives. Agents should reach out to the suppliers they choose to partner with now and build a business plan to show the supplier they are loyal and mean business for 2014.”

“First and foremost, sell air,” says Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group. “Don’t shy away from it. After all, why would you want to steer your clients away from you for any component of their travel? Plus, money can still be earned selling air. Despite all the consolidation in the airline industry, existing carriers continue to rely on travel agents to sell their product.”