Business rocks, but keeping a travel agency productive and profitable takes work. How do you keep old customers and gain new ones? We asked a sampling of travel and business experts about their best tip for running or enhancing your business.
* Think Creatively, Not Old School: “Stop thinking of the old-school model of an agent at the desk,” says Michelle Weller, Travel Leaders, Houston, TX. Rather, she believes owners and managers should see travel advisors as professionals (similar to real estate agents) who make appointments to suit the client, even if it’s 9 p.m. “Be there when the business surfaces,” Weller emphasizes. Her agents work out of their house on a Voice-over-IP to assist customers booking late at night or on weekends.
* Personalize and Customize: “Personalization is key for offering customers a great experience,” says Yana Gutierrez, vice president, strategic partnerships, American Express Travel & Lifestyle Services. “All travelers want the right mix of guidance and options when planning a trip.” She recommends a “one-size-fits-one” focus and forging relationships with suppliers that can help the agent craft itineraries that appeal to varying client tastes.
* Tap Your Unfair Competitive Advantage: “The ‘best of the best’ figure out what’s really special about the service or goods they provide and then they fashion strong selling arguments around them to give them an unfair competitive advantage,” stresses Vicki Freed, senior vice president, sales and trade support & service, Royal Caribbean International. She says agents should ask themselves,
“What is my unfair competitive advantage?” This defines the agent and provides clients with the answer to “Why should I do business with this agent as opposed to others?”
|Matthew Upchurch: “You have to have a process to project your confidence.”|
* Project Your Confidence: “The number-one job of an entrepreneur is projecting his or her confidence,” Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO, Virtuoso, told Luxury Travel Advisor in its April 2014 issue. “In a world where there’s so much technology, so much stuff, and everything is going at warp speed, you have to have a process to project your confidence. Confidence is ultimately what people feel when they meet you.”
For agency owners, managers and advisors, the level of competence, passion and excitement exuded isn’t just verbal—it’s non-verbal too. “You can just feel it,” Upchurch says. Not being confident puts you at risk of always chasing the horizon. He recommends asking yourself, “What am I doing today? What am I working on right now that makes me confident?”
* Specialize First, Then Experience the Product: “It’s impossible to be an expert on every single travel company being promoted,” says Guy Young, president and CEO, Uniworld. So specialize. Find a core focus, whether it’s cruising, land packages, FITS or some other sector, and then decide to target either high-end companies (and clients), contemporary or mass-market customers. Then choose suppliers carefully. “Important factors to consider are commission levels, product quality, and how supportive the company is in working with travel agents,” Young says.
Nexion agent Bob Beukema of Le Grande Tour, Richmond, VA, agrees that agents should specialize “not only to differentiate yourself from other agents but also in terms of pursuing ongoing education.” Get to know the supplier’s team, take fam trips or access agent discounts. “There is no better way to learn a product than by experiencing it,” Young adds.
* Make Time for Critical Tasks: Too often, important tasks—marketing, research, training and so on—are pushed aside because a manager or owner believes they’re too busy. Heather Christopher, a Vacation.com agent with Classic Travel, Woodbridge, VA, says, “Clients need appointments and so do your other business needs. Schedule time to work on marketing, networking and customer follow-up as an ‘appointment’ on your calendar.”
Nancy Friedman: Train all employees to effectively handle customer situations.
* Be Visible and Smart about Social Media: “You can’t underestimate the power of social media to showcase your expertise and stay connected to your customers,” Gutierrez stresses. Use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social sites to create relationships with potential clients and drive traffic to the agency website. Load friendly, helpful posts that showcase gorgeous travel photos, value-add deals, tips and satisfied customers. Avoid taking sides on personal or controversial issues.
Create a detailed social media schedule. Set goals for how many tweets/postings you wish to do daily. Weller suggests agents concentrate on one or two social media platforms, rather than spreading themselves too thinly with five or six.
* Train with a Customer-Centric Focus: “We know more business is lost due to poor service and poor treatment than poor product,” says customer service expert Nancy Friedman, aka “The Telephone Doctor”. It’s never too late to start training all employees to effectively handle customer situations. “Having only one or two folks know how to do that is preparing for danger,” she cautions. “Redundancy is important.”
She suggests calling agency locations to hear how customers are handled. Ask (or ask a friend to do so), “Can you send me a catalog on this cruise or that tour?” That’s a good way to find out what’s going on at the agency and how customers are treated.
* Stay High-Touch in a High-Tech World: Technology rules, but the more electronic screens customers view, the more they need a travel advisor to sort it all out. Use a high-touch approach. Reach out and engage in human interaction. “That almost always begins with a conversation,” says Freed. Pick up the phone and be personal with customers.
Debbie Fiorino: “Recognize and continue to focus on what works.”
Also, “stay in touch with your clients by remembering birthdays and holidays,” adds Phyllis Dale, vice president/co-owner, Great Escapes Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Lake Mary, FL. It’s good to be prompt in responding to calls and e-mails.
* Practice & Plan for Sales Success: Sales skills should be practiced daily, says Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales, Avoya Travel/American Express Travel Representative: “An agent’s income is a direct result of his or her ability to sell, even more than product knowledge. Spend as much time each week studying sales as the products you offer.”
Create and practice master scripts for customer contact. “Great agents don’t rely on their knowledge or try to wing each client interaction,” Koepf says. “Great stories have great scripts.” In his view, the best advisors also differentiate themselves from average sellers with a daily to-do list, time for client interactions, education, research and good networking.
* Focus on Referrals: Encourage clients to provide post-vacation feedback. “We have found that this is a perfect time to talk about a new vacation and also to ask for referrals,” says Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., a Virtuoso agency, Fort Worth, TX. More than half her business comes from referrals. “We encourage our clients to give us referrals and we thank them for these by doing something special for them on their next trip,” she notes.
* Feed Success and Starve Failure: “It’s important to recognize and continue to focus on what works, and modify or discontinue the unsuccessful,” says Debbie Fiorino, senior vice president, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., and human resources, World Travel Holdings. “I learned this from Google and believe this notion can be applied to all aspects of one’s personal and professional life.”