The Art of Networking

Travel Professionals use many Strategies to expand their clientele base: mailings and brochures, giving seminars, writing a travel column in a local newspaper, paying for advertising or hosting a special event.

Yet the most effective—and least costly—way to get more clients is to generate word-of-mouth buzz and set off a chain reaction of referrals. You must first develop that initial clientele base, how- ever. Home-Based Travel Agent asked agents for their best networking strategies, and they all agreed that it is important to talk about travel to just about everyone you come into contact with.

Robin Fox is a veteran agent for the independent Virtuoso-affiliated agency Pisa Brothers Travel Service in New York City; she splits her time between the company's office in Rockefeller Center and her home office. Jolie Goldring (left) and her mother, Ellie Colin

Fox, who has 27 years of experience selling travel, stresses the need to network with the people you meet every day. "I always tell people what I do, and pass out business cards," she says.

Over the years, Fox shifted her focus from corporate to high-end leisure, and she says that the bulk of her clients are people she has met through her involvement in her children's schools (she has two sons) and her membership in a local gym, the Reebok Sports Club/NY. Many of the acquaintances she met at these locales turned into repeat customers, and began spreading the word about Fox, referring friends, family and colleagues to her. "Everyone is looking for travel advice, and the more people you tell about what you do, the better. It can only help," she says. "Go places you enjoy, and make some contacts."

Fox also says that agents should not be shy about name dropping, as long as they are discreet."I have some high-profile clients, and I will say, 'I just sent so-and-so to wherever.' It gives me more credibility. People think that if I can handle the travel plans of a celebrity or a well-known exec, then I should be able to take care of their trip." Robin Fox of Pisa Brothers Travel Service

Her ability to network has made Fox successful, along with her commitment to give her clients "a little extra; something special." She now plans family vacations for the relatives of her sons' schoolmates. Some of the contacts Fox made at her gym turned out to be high-powered corporate executives, who, after booking luxury itineraries with Fox and coming back satisfied, recommended her around the office. Some clients have referred a son, daughter, niece or nephew planning to tie the knot; organizing destination weddings and honeymoons has been a staple for her.

The lesson? Making the effort to reach out to the random people you meet every day can start a chain reaction that leads to an expanding clientele base.

Ellie Colin and Jolie Goldring are a mother-daughter team of independent contractors in New York City, affiliated with the Ovation Travel Group and Virtuoso, focusing on high-end corporate and luxury leisure travel. Colin, who has 22 years of experience selling travel, has evolved from having two tiny accounts to hiring five agents to help her handle the work load. She echoed a familiar theme: "I have my cards with me at all times, and wherever I go, I explain what I do." She says always be honest, forthright and unabashed when selling the services and expertise that you have to offer—whether that person is a family member, a friend or a complete stranger.

"I met three of my best clients—on separate occasions—while sharing a cab," Colin says. "They asked what I do, I told them, and they asked for my card. I would never push it on them, but when someone asks, I'm ready." She has also been introduced to many future clients at cocktail parties.

Colin says that it's important to focus on details to get clients for life. "You really have to go out of your way for your client; don't stop at air and hotel, go five steps further," she advises. She has had success selling add-ons to her high-end clientele, beefing up her commission with special shows, golf tee-times, massages and spa treatments, dinner reservations and more. More Tips for Gaining New Clients

By providing "hassle-free travel" for her clients and leveraging her existing client base, she does not have to advertise. "One client begets another," she says—sometimes many others. She is now thriving solely on referrals, and has the leeway to refer prospective clients elsewhere if they don't seem like a good fit. "There has to be good chemistry and communication," she says.

Colin's daughter, Jolie Goldring, has learned a lot from her mother, and she also affirms that, especially in this business, "building relationships is critical." She is careful to take advantage of any and all networking opportunities that present themselves over the course of the day. While her mother generally handles the lawyers and hedge fund analysts, Goldring has found success by attracting clients in her own demographic.

"Five years ago, all of my friends were getting married and coming to me to help plan their honeymoon," she says. "Word of mouth spread, and suddenly my honeymoon business was booming." Many of her honeymoon clients turned into repeat leisure clients.

Now, people who are married with young children are her bread and butter. "I have a baby, so I tend to talk to other moms a lot," she says. She calls upon her own travel experiences when pitching to other parents, and her ability to speak firsthand about traveling with an infant is especially compelling and informative for young couples who are just starting a family. She has acquired many new clients simply by speaking to other moms while their children play together on the playground.

Goldring also speaks openly about what she does to people with similar interests, and this has helped bring in 20- and 30-somethings, such as fellow members of her Pilates class and their friends. Like her mother, she enjoys turning the conversation to travel at social occasions of all kinds, whether they happen to be cocktail parties or baby showers.

What these agents all have in common is that they are tuned in. They see random daily encounters as opportunities; they look at acquaintances as potential clients. Amiable, well spoken and adept at making a personal connection with someone they've just met, they are able to steer the conversation in a natural way toward what they do for a living. All have learned that these initial efforts are necessary; referrals and word-of-mouth publicity are much more valuable (and cost effective) than any advertising campaign.


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