HOWEVER CHALLENGING OR TIME-CONSUMING IT MAY BE, MARKETING YOUR TRAVEL BUSINESS IS AN ESSENTIAL PART OF A SUCCESSFUL AGENT'S CAREER. Although word of mouth is always a wonderful way to develop and maintain client relationships, experienced agents know that actively promoting your company must be a continuous process—and unique, attention-grabbing methods are the most effective way to promote oneself. This is especially important for home-based agents, who may just be starting out and not have access to a built-in network of clients. We spoke to several veteran home-based agents who shared how they get the creative juices flowing. Here, we share their insider tips to inspire, motivate, and spark your imagination.
Work Your Connections
Often, your best bet for effective advertising might be in your own backyard, says Mindy Rozenberg, a home-based agent based in Lower Merion, PA.
"Look at what's around you, and think of places where you already have an 'in,'" she says. "Then, take the initiative to use those things to your advantage." As an example, Rozenberg has gained clients from both her son's school and her family's synagogue.
"These are people who already know me; I'm not a stranger who is trying to come up and sell them something. They can talk to me without thinking, 'What's the catch?'" she says. The parents and teachers at the school know Rozenberg well and have booked trips with her. She'll also host a travel night at a local community center, offering refreshments and raffle prizes. To enter the raffle, people must leave their contact information, and Rozenberg will then follow up with them later. She'll also leave her business card with people. Getting on the Net
"People will go nuts over the prizes and have fun at the event. The business usually trickles in later. It doesn't happen right away...but maybe several months from now, they'll want to book a trip, and they'll remember having met me."
It's all about who you know, Rozenberg says. "Agents are usually surprised by how many people they actually do know." Community organizations like the Boy Scouts, parent-teacher associations, and political groups are other places where home-based agents may have an in, says Rozenberg. "Or," she adds, "maybe your child is a student at a dance school. Design a trip based around dance—maybe to Russia to see the ballet. Then offer it to dance students and their families."
Rozenberg is also friends with a resident of a local senior living community, and by being a friendly and familiar face around the neighborhood was able to earn some business there. She first left a flyer explaining who she is and what she does in the mailbox of every resident. A few months later, she came to the senior community with materials on various trips and cruises, and held another refreshment night to introduce herself. "These are older people who are retired and have some money to spend. They're active people, they like doing things and they like to be together. It's a great way to earn group bookings." Rozenberg was also able to get a cruise line to pick up the tab for the refreshments.
Another tip, she says, is to customize your marketing by thinking of what your clients might be interested in. "Travelers these days want the "wow" factor. They want to come back and brag to their friends, so unique things, such as culinary tours, are popular." She recommends building an event around a trend like that and finding a suitable group of people, such as those at a gourmet cooking store or cooking class, to entice with thoughts of a culinary-based vacation.
Develop a Niche
Jennifer Doncsecz operates VIP Vacations Inc. out of her home in Whitehall, PA. She has found considerable success by focusing on the honeymoon market, becoming known as a local honeymoon expert.
"I attend several local bridal shows year after year, so in some cases, I see the same brides several times. They become familiar with me." Booths at bridal shows can run agents up to $1,500, but can also yield important contacts other than couples in love: You can find more brides-to-be by joining forces with other wedding professionals in your area. Doncsecz has formed a network with a local wedding planner and photographer; they'll recommend her to their existing clients, and vice versa. For lists of bridal conventions, visit www.bridaltradeshows.com.
Doncsecz also works directly with wedding companies, such as Weddings.com and WeddingZone, which let her include a free listing on their web sites. Her number-one secret, though, is to get the attention of the grooms-to-be at the very start of the wedding process: the time when he purchases the engagement ring.
"Find a great jewelry store to work with," she says. "We start with a letter in the bag that he gets when he buys his ring. It congratulates him on the engagement and offers a $50 credit toward the purchase of a wedding band at that jewelry store, if the couple books a trip with us." You can also try doing a promotional table in a wedding reception venue, says Doncsecz, since another one of the first things a couple does is choose a place for their reception.
Doncsecz says she works closely with Sandals Resorts, which she finds is a great company for supporting the travel agents who are getting them business.
Two years ago, Sandals held a promotion where agents could exchange booking business for rewards from the company—the best prize being a "Sandals-ized" vehicle—a car wrapped in colorful Sandals logos and advertisements—that is leased for free to top-producing agents. "People know me around town by this car," Doncsecz says. "It's like a moving billboard." She also notes that by winning the car and cultivating relationships with Sandals and other companies, she doesn't have to pay for most of her marketing. "Go to who you're loyal to," she recommends. "Loyalty is underestimated in this business, but it's so important."
While driving a moving billboard around town might not be possible for everyone, never stop searching for creative and fun ways to catch the eye of a potential traveler. "I know of an agent who did a fortune cookie promotion," recalls Rozenberg. "She had fortune cookies made with fortunes that said, 'A wonderful trip is in your future' and her contact info on the back.
"Make yourself unique," she stresses. "Whatever it takes: You've got to constantly remind clients that you are there. Put [marketing] on the front burner."
Make the Media Your Friend
Another way to attract business is to get your name into the newspaper. "Today it may be just the local newspaper, but a reporter at a larger publication may see your name and call you," says Amanda Klimak of Largay Travel in Waterbury, CT. Though not a home-based agent, Klimak's idea can work for even the newest of home-based business owners. Volunteer yourself to reporters as a quotable source on travel issues, or contact a newspaper and offer to write an occasional column on travel. "It's free advertising, and it helps position you as an expert," says Klimak.
Be Web Savvy
In this day and age, says Randy Maged, a home-based agent who runs Ask The Travel Maven out of her home in Potomac, MD, one simply cannot underestimate the importance of the web, because when people want to book a trip, the first place they'll go is online.
"Today, it's vital for everyone to be on the net," she says. "My web site allows me to be accessible to just about everyone. Not a day goes by without at least 40 or 50 visitors to my site. I've basically stopped sending brochures; it saves a fortune for everybody, and nothing looks better than it can on a well-planned web site." If you haven't already done so, create a site (see the box on page 29 for books that offer how-to tips and "Search Engine Optimization," page 16, for how to drive traffic to it) and devote a section to your own travel blog. Post correspondent-like dispatches from the destinations you visit, which will keep clients inspired to visit these places and keep your name on their minds. Take it a step further and create a forum where your clients can post their own travel accounts and communicate with each other. This creates a community within your client base, and keeps everyone excited about traveling.
Maged also never forgets the power of old-fashioned communication, like phone calls, letters and firsthand visits. "I look for new, fabulous places to send my troops. I visit them, and then I talk up the properties and send them any media buzz associated with it. It's a win-win for everybody, and it hasn't failed yet."