Top Tips on Focusing Your Travel Business From Travel Industry Exchange

By Ruthanne Terrero and Joe Pike

Specialization was the overriding theme of the inaugural Travel Industry Exchange, a comprehensive reimagining of Questex Travel Group’s former Luxury Travel Exchange. “For years, we’ve been telling you that luxury is the future,” says John McMahon, executive vice president of Questex Travel Group, which organized the show. “And now we talk about specialization as a further extension of the future.”

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In addition to more than eight hours of one-to-one meetings and a wealth of networking opportunities, the event, held last month at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, provided insights into all things Millennial, the burgeoning LGBT market and, of course, luxury travel as well. Here are some of the top takeaways gleaned from our panel discussions and sessions.

What makes you brilliant?

If you can answer this question, you can begin the road to becoming a travel expert and not simply a “booker of travel,” says Meredith Hill, founder and president of the Global Institute for Travel Entrepreneurs (GIFTE) and the keynote speaker at Travel Industry Exchange. Hill’s advice to attendees — and agents everywhere — is that the key to becoming a travel expert is specialization.

“We are not travel agents anymore, we are travel experts,” Hill says. “There is demand for your expertise, but the supply is not there yet. Simple bookers of travel are still in demand as well but there is more supply for it than demand.” The first step in specializing, she adds, is “finding your brilliance,” which is a fancy way of asking yourself where your true passion lies.

“You don’t want to choose a specialty that is not logical,” she says. “It needs to be something in your heart, something that you’re passionate about.” Hill points out that while she was an agent in 2006, she saw her sales quadruple when she decided to specialize.

Hill also shared some valuable trends that should make today’s travel professional optimistic about the future. Some key factors that will help drive business for all agents, she says, are the fact that Baby Boomers are mostly entering retirement; that Millennial travelers are rising; that technology has made it possible to work and market from anywhere; and, most importantly, that people are looking for someone to filter the overwhelming information now available online.

“People crave wisdom, people crave an opinion, people crave a filter,” Hill says. “They want someone to sort out all of this information overload.”

“Brainstorming Ideas: Habits of Millennial Travelers” was the subject of a panel that included Dave Cicotte, marketing communications and social media associate, Conlin Travel, and TripScope CEO & Founder Katelyn O’Shaughnessy.
“Brainstorming Ideas: Habits of Millennial Travelers” was the subject of a panel that included Dave Cicotte, marketing communications and social media associate, Conlin Travel, and TripScope CEO & Founder Katelyn O’Shaughnessy.

The Millennial Wave

The general session kicked off with a panel discussion titled, “Raise the Bar Now: Step Up Your Business for the Next Wave of Travelers.” Conducted by Ruthanne Terrero, vice president of content and editorial director of Questex Travel Group, the panel comprised Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel; Cindy D’Aoust, acting CEO for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA); and Zane Kerby, president of American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

“We are all experiencing a robust economy, phones are ringing off the hook, people are traveling,” says Bush. There is an amazing wave of Baby Boomers who are all in the midst of retiring from their jobs, he observes, but there’s an even bigger wave right behind that one — namely, Millennials, which he says, “will be bigger than any other generation before. They do not have any preconceived notions when it comes to a travel agent and they are all using us.”

Joe Pike, senior editor, Travel Agent, catches up with guest speaker Vanessa McGovern, VP, business development and strategic partnership, Global Institute for Travel Entrepreneurs.
Joe Pike, senior editor, Travel Agent, catches up with guest speaker Vanessa McGovern, VP, business development and strategic partnership, Global Institute for Travel Entrepreneurs.

In fact, according to a presentation Travel Agent sat in on earlier this year on a study by Peter Yesawich, vice chairman of MMGY Global, the use of a traditional travel agent has been increasing over the last four years, and the driving force behind that increase is Millennial travelers.

This may surprise some agents, since the Millennial generation is often considered the all-digital, all-online generation. But according to Yesawich, Millennials are confident in an agent’s planning abilities. They also value their time so much that they would rather delegate the research and booking stages of a vacation to a travel expert.

“We try to put [Millennials] in a box, but there is no box to put them in,” says D’Aoust. “They want a personalized trip. You need to understand who your customer is regardless of age. They will come back to you because they are loyalists.”

D’Aoust does warn advisors that Millennials will expect you to know all of the “digital tools” out there. For example, she argues that you can “lose a sale in a second” if you don’t have a fresh website, etc.

“You need to ask yourself: ‘Everything I’m putting forward, from business cards to my website . . . does it look like something contemporary?’ ” says Bush. But Kerby argues that a solid presentation is just the beginning of winning over the client.

“You need more than just pretty pictures,” says Kerby, “because the Internet can serve up what you’re selling in a second. They need someone they can trust. It needs to be more than that because they can get that anywhere. Why you?”

“At the end of the day, people crave the human touch,” adds Terrero. “Sometimes people just want to be listened to.”

John McMahon, executive vice president of Questex Travel Group, discusses the importance of specialization in today’s travel agent industry and introduces Travel Agent University specialist programs focusing on three key niches: Cruise, Romance and Luxury.
John McMahon, executive vice president of Questex Travel Group, discusses the importance of specialization in today’s travel agent industry and introduces Travel Agent University specialist programs focusing on three key niches: Cruise, Romance and Luxury.

LGBT Market Generates Plenty of Buzz

While the first day of the Travel Industry Exchange was dominated by discussions on Millennials and Baby Boomers, the remaining two days saw heavy buzz surrounding the growing LGBT market. In fact, a panel on LGBT travel trends and patterns drew the highest attendance for any of the show’s educational presentations, aside from the general session.

Travel Agent sat in on the discussion, which was moderated by LoAnn Halden, communications director for the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA). The panel members were Jim McMichael, diversity and cultural manager for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority; Tom Alderink, Belmond’s first director of LGBT sales; and Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer for Cruise Planners.

“The biggest evolution is that we are recognized as a viable market now,” says Halden, who noted that the LGBT market is estimated to be worth about $200 billion a year.

Discussing specialty cruises are Ellen Bettridge, Azamara Club Cruises’ VP,marketing and sales, the Americas; Navin Sawhney, COO of Ponant in the Americas; Gretchen Bell, SeaDream Yacht Club‘s VP-sales, the Americas; and, at the podium, Charles Sylvia, CLIA’s VP- membership.
Discussing specialty cruises are Ellen Bettridge, Azamara Club Cruises’ VP,marketing and sales, the Americas; Navin Sawhney, COO of Ponant in the Americas; Gretchen Bell, SeaDream Yacht Club‘s VP-sales, the Americas; and, at the podium, Charles Sylvia, CLIA’s VP- membership.

Alderink says Peru is really hot right now for the LGBT market, while Mexico is also becoming a huge LGBT weddings and honeymoons destination.

McMichael says Las Vegas started to market to the LGBT community around 2007-2008. He adds that LGBT clients 50 years old and above usually gravitate to more traditional, more subtle gay-friendly destinations, such as Palms Springs and Key West, while the Millennial LGBT client doesn’t necessarily have to vacation in spots entirely occupied by gay and lesbian clients. This generation feels comfortable going anywhere, he says.

On the LGBT travel trends panel are Jim McMichael, diversity and cultural manager, Las Vegas Convention & Visitor Authority; Tom Alderink, director of LGBT sales, Belmond; Vicky Garcia, COO, Cruise Planners; and LoAnn Halden, media relations manager, International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association.
On the LGBT travel trends panel are Jim McMichael, diversity and cultural manager, Las Vegas Convention & Visitor Authority; Tom Alderink, director of LGBT sales, Belmond; Vicky Garcia, COO, Cruise Planners; and LoAnn Halden, media relations manager, International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association.

“The 25- to 30-year-old LGBT clients that are coming to Las Vegas now have been out since they were 12, they were members of the LGBT club in high school,” jokes McMichael, making the point that the younger generation tends to feel more accepted among all travelers and locals.

In fact, McMichael says he is seeing an increasing trend of both gay and straight couples traveling with each other. Same-sex family travel is also picking up steam, says McMichael.

“Gay people have been coming to Vegas for many years,” says McMichael, “but it took us an economic downturn to realize the opportunity with that consumer.”

Garcia says that same blending of gay and straight clients can be found on cruises today, as opposed to years ago when an LGBT client had to go on an all-gay cruise.

“Not every LGBT client wants that,” says Garcia. “It doesn’t have to be everything gay, just like people wouldn’t want to travel on an all-white cruise or an all-Hispanic cruise.”

“Adventure travel has also become very important within our community,” says Halden. “The other thing you need to know about this market is that LGBT people always want to get there first. It’s also no surprise that destination weddings and honeymoons are the biggest trends in the LGBT market right now.”

McMichael says the biggest buzzword a straight agent selling LGBT travel should use is “LGBT Ally.”

“This is a strong buzzword you can use that shows you are engaged in this community,” he says. “You might not be gay, but you are an ally of the community. Use that buzzword.” McMichael’s further advice to attendees: Keep an eye on the “T” in LGBT, which is the transgender market.

“Ever heard of Caitlyn Jenner?” he asks. “The ‘T’ in the LGBT community is something you are going to see growing really fast now that they have a leader.”

In addition to the informative panel discussions, Travel Industry Exchange offered more than eight hours’ worth of one-to-one agent-supplier meetings.
In addition to the informative panel discussions, Travel Industry Exchange offered more than eight hours’ worth of one-to-one agent-supplier meetings.

Lessons in Luxury

What are the invaluable lessons for building a customized luxury trip for a client? A panel on the luxury track at Travel Industry Exchange entitled “Sculpting the Perfect FIT: Crafting the Ideal Itinerary for Your Discerning Client,” gave the audience the lowdown.

Getting to know your client and earning their trust is vital.

“It’s having conversations with them, really getting to know them and listening a lot, because they want to be heard, and you need to hear what their interests are,” says Elizabeth Loftus, business development manager for Luxury Trips, and a member of this year’s Travel Agent 30Under30 group.“They might work very hard and so they want their money to be spent well so the trip is going to be memorable and perhaps even life-changing for them.”

Loftus says she establishes her credibility with luxury clients by showing them she has resources and even puts them on the phone with suppliers, if that helps.

Staying in constant touch after the trip is booked is another way to strengthen the relationship. Loftus calls and sends e-mails to talk about the trip; she’ll send along articles on the destinations they’re visiting and postcards to remind clients she is there for them and holding their hand the entire way. All of this instills confidence in the client, she says.

Luxury specialists Mary Ann Ramsey, president of Betty Maclean Travel; Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel; and Elizabeth Loftus, business development manager for Luxury Trips, share their tips on “Crafting the Ideal Itinerary for Your Discerning Client.”
Luxury specialists Mary Ann Ramsey, president of Betty Maclean Travel; Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel; and Elizabeth Loftus, business development manager for Luxury Trips, share their tips on “Crafting the Ideal Itinerary for Your Discerning Client.”

Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel and his team make it a point to ask a new client to invest time with them so they can get to know each other. “We’re not even going to talk about a trip,” says Bush. “We’re not just going to ask where they want to go and what they want to do, but why it is that they want to travel.” 

It’s also imperative to determine who the other travelers, or “stakeholders” on the trip are and to get inputs from them. “Sometimes plans can become very easily derailed because they weren’t involved in those conversations,” says Bush. “If there are children involved, that’s usually the economic driver. They’re also the decision makers.”

Breaking down that trust barrier usually takes about two to three trips, says Bush. Prior to that, expect the client to question everything you suggest and to do his or her own fact checking. To ease this part of the process, Avenue Two Travel advisors assure new clients that the trip planning is going to be a collaborative process. “For a lot of people, that research is part of the fun of the trip. If you cut them out of that, it can be a real turn-off to some people,” says Bush.

Keynote speaker Meredith Hill, founder and president, Global Institute for Travel Entrepreneurs, with Chris Austin, VP global leisure and luxury sales, Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
Keynote speaker Meredith Hill, founder and president, Global Institute for Travel Entrepreneurs, with Chris Austin, VP global leisure and luxury sales, Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

Once you’ve executed flawlessly on those first few trips, things become really easy. “It gets to be like clockwork when you start to know what their preferences and their likes and what their dislikes are; they tell you to just go ahead and book the trip,” Bush adds.

Mary Ann Ramsey, president and owner of Betty Maclean Travel, says during those initial conversations, it’s so important to take note of all the details as the clients open up about their preferences.

“When it’s an FIT, it’s crucial to do that, because they will want to make sure when you present the program back to them that you’re incorporating all the little things that they want.” If something is not possible, communicate that back to the client rather than leave it out of the itinerary. “You want to make sure you cover it by saying, ‘Well, this isn’t possible because it’s not open on that day’ or ‘This isn’t possible because there are going to be too many people on this day. How about doing it on another day?’ That’s crucial to building trust with new clients as well as existing clients.”

If FIT clients aren’t forthcoming about their desires, Ramsey has a list of questions to ask and she might even ask them several times in different ways to get a robust response.

“What hotels do you like? Where do you normally stay? Where do you stay that you really love? Just ask the question over and over again in different ways if you’re not getting the feedback,” she says.

Her favorite question? “‘Where have you stayed that you don’t like? Tell me about that experience.’ They will tell you, and that gives you a clue to what they don’t like, what has gone wrong for them in the past, and how you can circumvent that so it doesn’t happen again in the future. It’s just so crucial to listen, listen, listen, listen.”

At the “Defining Your Luxury Niche & Marketing It to Success” panel, Alyse Cori, owner of Travelwize, gave travel agents in attendance a true boost in confidence when she pointed out that they were already on track to build their luxury business because they had traveled to the conference to educate themselves on this niche.

“The more education you have, the more that will make you an asset to your client. Knowledge is luxury. People can look on the Internet but if you’ve been to that hotel and you know that’s not the right match for that person’s personality, that’s an asset. You should all have a lot of confidence in yourselves because you’re here.”

Confidence is a key factor to selling luxury, Cori says, and she strongly encouraged the audience to believe in themselves.

“Don’t be afraid to be yourselves,” she says. “I treat people like equals. I’m a real person to them. The worst thing that could happen is you’ll get 100 million rejections, but then you’re going to get the opportunity of a lifetime. Know that it’s there and believe that you’re going to get it. Never feel as if you’re not worth it. That attitude is just a magnet.” 

Save the Date(s)

Want to be there in person at the 2016 Travel Industry Exchange? Make plans to join us next December 13-15 in sunny San Diego.

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