The thousands of travel agents attending this year’s Luxury Travel Expo at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas this week showed up ready to learn, network and interact with the 500 suppliers exhibiting at the show. The trade show floor was abuzz throughout the duration of the event, and seminar rooms were packed with travel agents taking notes and asking astute questions on how to steer their businesses.
What was the general tone of the event? Well, certainly no one was sugar coating the fact that we are indeed in a most challenging environment. However, many concurred that there are indeed some strong opportunities in the marketplace right now.
At the “Customize and Captivate: The Changing World of Tours” panel, which was artfully moderated by Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg of Valerie Wilson Travel, Ian Swain, president and owner of Swain Tours pointed out that the U.S. dollar is the strongest it’s been for many years overseas. “It’s 35 percent to 40 percent cheaper than it was three months ago and there are great deals out there now because the hotels have fewer people in them now,” he said.
Swain noted that his company is taking these two combined factors to create programs that are priced 40 percent to 50 percent less expensive than they were six months ago. “In so many ways, you can spend that money more wisely now,” he said. “We talk to the hoteliers, find out where their soft spots are and come back with deals.”
Swain offered a piece of sage advice to the agents in the audience: Call your clients to let them know about the great opportunities that are out there. “It’s time to communicate with the world the way we used to, make the call," he said. "But don’t just say, ‘Hi,’ have a meaningful message for them. Ask them if they’ve seen the movie Australia and then tell them you’ve just found an incredible deal. It can be as simple or complex as you like.”
Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris also provided a strong piece of wisdom for agents: team up with partners for joint promotions who a year ago wouldn’t have been interested in doing so. “There isn’t a car dealership or a store on Madison Avenue that wouldn’t want to partner with you now,” he said.
One brilliant tip from Pinto was for travel agents to work with the local Habitat for Humanity program in their communities so that they can bond with their clients while giving back. "Above all, put your best face forward," Pinto advised. “This is a great time to project confidence. If someone asks how you are doing, don’t give them 10 minutes of gloom.”
Pinto said that he is confident that the stock market is going to recover in time. And despite the downturn, said Pinto, Micato is not cutting back on its marketing, in particular to the travel agency community. The company is also using this time to put more sales representatives in the field to work with agents.
As far as marketing in this downturn goes, Pinto suggested that travel agents use quick sound bytes in their electronic messaging because “clients don’t have time to read everything.” More importantly, he added, “use this downturn to maintain or reinforce the credibility that you have with your clients so that they will open your emails when you send them.”
Scott Wiseman, president of Abercrombie & Kent, concurred that “if it’s not a customized message, they’re not going to pay attention to it.” He said that A&K has a special offers section on its site that allows agents to create an e-mail to send to clients in just three clicks.
Tauck World Disovery, meanwhile, is banking on the baby boomer market, and in fact, used Luxury Travel Expo as the venue from which to launch a new brand called Tauck Culturious. Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck, said that the program, which debuts in January, is designed to attract the active baby boomer and that it will be destination intensive, immersing clients into culture-rich experiences.
Sally Rawlings, senior director of American Express Vacations, meanwhile, said that families continue to travel with their children. As a result, American Express Vacations is putting together a program that will be exclusive to American Express. Amenities that are attractive to families, such as guaranteeing the ability to have connecting rooms, will be included in the program, she said.
Rawlings noted that American Express Vacation’s customers, despite the downturn, are showing a strong interest in the Caribbean and Mexico because of the fact that the all-inclusive properties there have successfully upgraded their product.
There are similarly bright spots and opportunities from the cruise industry.
At the “Navigating Choppy Waters: Luxury Cruise Execs Share ‘Inside Intel’” panel, David Morris, executive vice president of worldwide sales for Silversea, said that one luxury travel agent at the show told him that, during this downturn, the cruise itineraries that are most definitely not seeing cancellations are those that she is personally escorting. “People want security," he said. "They want the comfort of knowing someone will be there for them.”
Morris echoed Ian Swain’s advice. “Call your clients... take them to lunch,” he said. Morris added that he recently got a call from a store in Dallas that he had shopped at in the past that told him it really needed his business. He went down there and did virtually all of his Christmas shopping. “If you don’t call them, they aren't going to book with you,” Morris advised.
According to the executives on the cruise panel, agents can watch for some great deals to emerge in the marketplace.
Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises took the opportunity to let agents in the audience know that his cruise line will be using the “value add” strategy, rather than discounting, to attract customers. “We will be doing something with shore excursion packages,” he said.
Pamela Conover, president and CEO of the Yachts of Seabourn, said her cruise line is about to launch a promotion that allows three couples who sail together with the cruise line to book all-inclusive private shore arrangements, as long as one of the couples sailing is new to the line.
For his part, Gregg Michel, president and CEO of Crystal Cruises, hinted that values will be getting much stronger in Europe for the coming year.
In the end, the executives urged agents to remain optimistic and to remain true to their business strategies.
“Keep marketing,” said Conover. “And be proud of what you do. This is a great business to be in. You are helping people to create lasting memories and experiences.”
“Don’t cut back on your marketing,” echoed Conroy. “If you do, you will pay for that in 2009. If you aren’t marketing to your clients, someone else will be.”
Next year’s Luxury Travel Expo will be held December 1-3 at The Signature at MGM Grand.