Travel Agent's 2016 Survival Guide

The Challenge: The Rising Popularity of Airbnb and Other Private Home Rentals

Travel agents constantly need to field questions about renting homes, not hotel rooms. Now, more than ever, travelers want more freedom in their choice of accommodations, meaning if they are traveling with a large group they want a kitchen to cook meals. If it is a family with multiple children, they want multiple bedrooms and bathtubs.

The Solution: Look for Commissionable Alternatives with Comparable Amenities

When the request for a rental home comes up, agents should be ready to respond with hotels that offer amenities like those found in rental homes. Recently, the Nelson Mandela Centre for Reconciliation (Nelson Mandela’s private retreat) reopened and can be rented out in completion for up to 12 guests. This property gives travelers a look into history, while also providing that private homestay. Here, guests will have a large living space with a fireplace, six bedrooms, a private pool that overlooks a waterhole and more. Another option is Cassia Phuket, which Banyan Tree recently opened in Phuket, Thailand. The guest rooms include a kitchen, living space and one or two bedrooms, which, we say, is perfect for small families or couples traveling together. Don’t forget to mention that Wi-Fi and breakfast is also included in stay here.

If clients insist on staying in a private home rental, agents shouldn’t push the sale away. Instead, offer a homestay through a site where commissions are available. debuted a few weeks ago, giving travel agents access to more than 600,000 short-term rentals. The best part is that all the rentals offer a commission and are professionally managed, meaning your clients won’t be surprised or underwhelmed when they arrive. The new properties are available in 114 countries and are being rolled out through Sabre. We hear that the site will add even more properties and offerings in 2016. Bottom Line: Home rentals aren’t moving off traveler’s radars anytime soon. Be prepared to respond to the request and you will be successful.

Nexion President Jackie Friedman: “I’m a big believer in an integrated, multi-channel approach [to] attracting new clients online.”
Nexion President Jackie Friedman: “I’m a big believer in an integrated, multi-channel approach [to] attracting new clients online.”

The Challenge: Terrorism

The Solution: Set an Example, Stick to the Facts

Last year, terrorism hit one of the top travel destinations in the world, Paris. However, there were multiple attacks in other destinations around the world, including Tunisia. Because of these recent events, travelers may be hesitant to travel internationally. In response to these attacks, the U.S. State Department has issued a worldwide travel alert for U.S. citizens. The State Department cited that terrorist groups are using a wide range of weapons to attack both public and official sites. The alert is set to be in effect until February 24, 2016.

Steve Loucks, chief communications officer for Travel Leaders Group, tells Travel Agent that one of the best ways to instill confidence in clients is to travel themselves. “When agents travel to a destination in question themselves and are able to articulate that to their clients, they’re reassuring those customers in a way that speaks volumes,” explains Loucks.

Loucks also urged travel agents to speak with “one voice” when it comes to the topic of terrorism. Rather than adding to the mood of speculation and fear, Loucks suggests that agents speak only about the facts. Tip: Travel Leaders Group provides agents with talking points and up-to-date information provided by the State Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Hurricane Center and many other sources to deal with the ever-changing travel industry.

ruthanne terrero

Column: Why 2016 Is No Better Time to Upsell

The Challenge: Winning Clients Over Online

Drumming up new business via the Internet is a constantly evolving task. Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales, Avoya Travel, says that, as with most retail sectors, a few large entities tend to dominate online visibility when it comes to travel. “It is going to become increasingly difficult to get noticed, with the exception of marketing to your own customers,” he says.

The Solution: Never Stop Telling Your Story

Reaching out to travelers is a matter of constant communication.

For Scott Kertes, president and owner of Vacations by Design @ Hartford Holidays, an Ensemble Travel Group member, content is king. “Attracting new customers online is all about specialization, personalization, telling my story…and inviting the cultivation of meaningful relationships,” Kertes says.

Brian Sanchez, a travel agent at a Travel Leaders location in Menomonee Falls, WI, says that he likes to post pictures and insight during his own personal travel experiences in real time. “Potential customers love knowing you’ve been to a possible destination on their own ‘bucket lists,’” he says.

Nexion President Jackie Friedman emphasizes the importance of using a variety of platforms. “I’m a big believer in an integrated, multi-channel approach when it comes to attracting new clients online,” she says.

Tracee Williams, luxury vacation designer, destinations, at, asks to watch for more activity on Instagram and live-streaming platform Periscope in the coming year. “Both forums offer a way to reach new clients who may not have heard of our business,” says Williams. “They’ll be able to see what we are experiencing.”

Jeff Clarke, president and CEO of Travel Impressions, says that being able to respond to potential customers in real time is key. “Most consumers who shop for vacations online won’t wait 24-48 hours for an agent to get in touch with rates and availability,” he says. “They’ll simply move on to a competitor’s website.”

At the same time, the most powerful storytelling is something an agent does every day: Sell great travel. “If you’re really astonishing at what you do, over time word will begin to spread about how extraordinary you are,” says Koepf.

The Challenge: Turn Social Media Marketing/Advertising Into a Solid ROI

We’ve heard for years how such social media platforms as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram could lead to potential sales. But are agents doing enough to make sure the time spent on social media actually equates to dollars and not just leads?

“Travel professionals are inundated with information on the importance of being on Facebook,” says Vanessa McGovern, the executive vice president of business development and strategic partnerships at the Gifted Travel Network. “Many trade events host classes on explaining the relevance of Facebook and the overall mechanics of this platform. However, the lines between personal and professional can get easily blurred on Facebook and before you know it is the end of the work day and all you did was make a few posts, commented here and there, liked posts and scrolled through the newsfeed.”

The Solution: Learn About Facebook’s Specific Marketing and ‘Back-end’ Tools

McGovern says the solution is actually quite easy. “Use Facebook ads to build a highly targeted list of ideal prospects,” she notes. “Then, on your own platform [through an e-mail auto responder service] build a relationship with this list through weekly e-mails that deliver high-value content and allow your list to get to know you. In order to effectively use Facebook ads, one must learn how to use Power Editor on Facebook. Power Editor is the ‘back-end’ tool for creating and managing ads.”

Dave Cicotte, CEO of High Five Pedal Tours in Ann Arbor, MI, goes a little further, urging agents to “create a strategy with yearly/monthly spend, engagement goals, and target audiences based on your 2015 sales data, age, location, marital status, interests, travel type, travel destination and spend.”

Cicotte then suggests applying your monthly budget and segment it into your top three-to-five audiences.

“Apply these variables within Facebook’s advertising and Power Editor tools,” he says. “Use ads to increase sales, boost posts highlighting you or your company specifically [awards, news articles, or anything that boosts your credibility], and use Facebook Dark Posts [unpublished posts] within Power Editor.”

According to Cicotte, these “Dark Posts” will only be distributed to the newsfeeds of people who like your page and will not be posted to your page as a post, hence unpublished or “dark” post.

“These posts allow you to target the same way you would within an ad or a boosted post,” says Cicotte. “Please don’t think you need a massive budget for this marketing. Whatever you decide you can spend, spend it. If you already have a marketing budget, I highly recommend shifting a majority of those dollars to social. You’ll need people’s attention in order to sell to them, and the only way to do that is to make the necessary change to the social ad spend. Also, while posting, always remember, content is important, but it comes in second place to context.”

The Challenge: Evolving OTAs in an Ever-Changing Industry

Remember when OTA’s were supposed to run all of the traditional travel agents straight out of business? Well, here’s a plot twist for you: It seems as though the OTAs are beginning to recruit the help of travel agents, a sign that perhaps the OTAs are beginning to call for a truce.

“One very interesting trend that I have noticed towards the end of 2015 is the likes of Orbitz and Expedia now looking to hire travel agents to evolve their service model,” says Andrey Zakharenko of Always Travel in San Francisco, CA. “We all know that over the years the number of travel professionals has gone down and the demand has been increasing. Where are they going to find quality travel professionals? How are they going to use the travel agents to differentiate themselves from their other online competitors? Finally, how is all of this going to change the travel industry?”

The Solution: Embrace the Awareness OTAs Create

The agents we spoke to believe that this can be a very big development for them and the industry in general. After all, it can provide more opportunities for aspiring travel professionals and even possibly increase consumers’ awareness of travel professionals.

Always Travel’s Andrey Zakharenko says OTAs are “looking to hire travel agents to evolve their service model.”
Always Travel’s Andrey Zakharenko says OTAs are “looking to hire travel agents to evolve their service model.”

“OTAs spend billions on promoting themselves and competing with each other,” says Zakharenko. “Well, they may now use those billions to let consumers know about travel professionals, something that ASTA or any other organization has failed to do on a large scale.”

“It may also lead to further consolidation in the industry,” he continues. “Of course, all of this is in the infancy stages, so only time will tell how the OTAs handle this.”

The Challenge: Baby Boomers Working With Millennial Travel Agents

The swarm of fresh faces hitting the travel industry for the last 10 years has been a welcoming sign for Baby Boomer agents once worried that there was no younger generation of travel agents. But with the constant rise and growth of successful Millennial agents who may have the upper hand from a technology standpoint, are Baby Boomer agents starting to feel threatened by Millennial agents?

After all, it can be frustrating to be asked to constantly reinvent yourself, especially after something’s been working. Now that the OTA storm has been effectively weathered, Baby Boomer agents may find themselves competing against their younger counterparts and again being asked to reinvent themselves by learning to use a whole slew of new business toys from apps to Instagram.

“A few years ago, one of the largest issues the travel industry faced was recruiting new young agents to enter the workforce,” says Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, CEO and founder of TripScope. “Since then, we’ve seen several young travel organizations form to recruit, train and support the next generation of professional travel agents. Looking ahead to 2016, these young agents will no longer serve as assistants to more senior agents, but become their own business.”

The Solution: Share the Pie by Teaming Up

To a great extent, Millennial travel agents are only rising as fast as they are because of their acceptance by seasoned, veteran agents, most of whom hired these agents with no prior travel industry experience.

Now that Millennials seem to be getting the knack of this whole travel agent thing, it’s time for them to return the favor for all those shared secrets by seasoned experts, and teach their technology and social media tricks to their Baby Boomer colleagues.

“This new breed of travel agents has already begun introducing new practices, such as the adoption of technology, servicing clients’ mobile first and offering interactive virtual travel planning instead of travel brochures inside a brick and mortar agency,” says O’Shaughnessy. “I believe in the next few years, travel agents will fundamentally change the way they deliver their expertise to clients and make themselves more accessible and engaging through new relevant channels.”

“E-mail is a tool ... a phone conversation is a relationship builder or dialog.”

—Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International

The Challenge: Getting Cruise Clients to “Stick”

Three of five consumers buy from a different travel agent than the one who booked their last cruise. More often than not, it’s simply because no strong relationship developed. “E-mail does not do it,” emphasizes Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and trade support & service, Royal Caribbean International. “E-mail is a tool or monologue while a phone conversation is a relationship builder or dialog.”

Interestingly enough, when consumers are asked why they booked with someone else, Freed says that many times clients actually don’t remember the name of the travel agent who booked the original trip. It’s not that the agent made any mistake in planning the vacation, but rather than the agent failed to build a relationship for a future booking.

The Solution: Showcasing  Your Value

Staying top of mind with customers is critical, Freed says. Send a birthday or child’s graduation card, cultivate the relationship and call the consumer every now and then. “A vacation is not an everyday purchase and with so many travel agents having the word ‘cruise’ in their company name, we are asking a lot for them to remember if it was “Cruise XXXX travel agent [a specific agent from a cruise selling group],” Freed stresses.

In addition, “showing your worth as a travel advisor is about far more than simply booking the cruise the client wants, notes Becky Geiser, vice president, Uniglobe Travel Center. “It’s about creating that perfect cruise vacation. Successful travel consultants make sure their clients are totally prepared for their cruise before they leave. Don’t let them go without booking all tours and dining options beforehand. Not only will that make this cruise vacation stand out for them but it puts more ‘0’s’ in your commission check.”

The Challenge: Increasing “Your Take”

One popular all-inclusive resort typically sends a $450 commission check for agents making 15 percent on a $3,000 booking, but North America’s six biggest cruise lines pay agencies 23 to 37 percent less commission on the same priced sale given NCFs (non-commissionable charges), Brad Tolkin, co-chairman and co-CEO, World Travel Holdings, told CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. agents attending the groups’ national convention.

The Solution: Sell Value, Sell Europe and Upsell

The good news, Tolkin says, is that fares are now rising, offering more inclusivity and thus a bit higher commission. So he’s bullish on the “value” direction the cruise industry is taking. Focus on selling more of cruise products with no or low NCFs, including luxury lines and many river and small-ship brands. But thankfully, even big-ship mainstream lines are now adding “value” into their fares — onboard credits, gratuities, drink packages, specialty dining or photo elements — rather than discounting fares to fill cabins. Keep selling cruises and more of them, says Tolkin. “The only way we’re going to be able to increase cruise pricing is by increasing demand,” he stresses.

“The simplest way is you’ve got to sell more Europe,” Tolkin says, noting that cruise lines need North American passengers on European voyages as onboard revenue is higher and cruisers book earlier so pricing is higher. “Our share of the cruise market in the Caribbean is substantial,” he says. “Our share of North American passengers traveling to Europe is less and we have a lot of running room.”

Upsell within the cruise products you book, adds Geiser. She also says agents can strive to book more balcony and veranda cabins over the next three months. She urges adding new goals: “For example, strive to gain five new cruise vacationers within the next six months.” 

A Millennial Talks About Millennials

Travel Agent’s Online Editor Natalie Maneval shares some insights about Millennial travelers, gleaned from her coverage of November’s Travel Leaders 2015 National Meeting and other presentations and panel discussions this past year, as well as her personal observations as a member of the “M” generation.

* Millennials Aren’t as Unique as You May Think: Millennials have behaviors that past generations also had in their 20s and 30s. In the early stage of their adult life they usually make less money than older travelers with more established careers. Think about how much money you made at your first few jobs; you probably weren’t staying at many four- and five-star hotels.

Millennials like taking selfies and texting, yes, but are comfortable with and appreciate talking on the phone with agents.
Millennials like taking selfies and texting, yes, but are comfortable with and appreciate talking on the phone with agents.

This is why it is important to not try and upsell your Millennial client on every step of their vacation. We don’t mind sitting in economy during shorter flights and booking a three-star hotel. However, we may want to spend more on the activities on our vacation. We will be more likely to spend more on something if it will leave us with a lasting memory, like an authentic meal at an upscale restaurant (many of us are foodies) or a helicopter ride. Just like older travelers, Millennials will spend more on the things they are most excited about doing or seeing on a vacation. If you listen to those important elements you will know when to offer more expensive options.

* Millennials Value Experience: Dedicated, involved parents in the Baby Boomer and Mature generations raised the Millennials, and because of this the Millennial generation has become accustomed to listening to advice and accepting guidance. We watch YouTube tutorials on how to hang shelves, read countless peer reviews before buying that new electronic device online, sign up for personal trainers at the gym and will gladly listen to a travel agent when booking trips. Yes, we grew up with the Internet; we also know how misleading the Internet can be at times. Be bold, and approach potential Millennial clients with your credentials — we won’t turn away if you explain your worth.

* Millennials Don’t Just Text: I hear it over and over again, Millennials don’t like to talk on the phone. However, I think this is oversimplified. We do use our phones continuously throughout the day to text and check e-mail, but we aren’t teenagers — we are adults and professionals and have adult social skills. Millennials are comfortable with talking on the phone, especially when having a complicated conversation. What we don’t like is to feel like our time is being wasted (there are only so many hours in a day). If you need to tell us something simple, like you booked the hotel we wanted, send a text. If you want to highlight visa requirements, send an e-mail. If you are altering our flights and changing the guided tour of an exhibit we are desperate to see, call us. If it is complicated and time sensitive, we will appreciate that you called (you can even leave a voicemail).

The LGBT Market: Destination Safety, Discrimination and Outreach

For travel agents who want to boost their bottom line by tapping into the growing LGBT travel market, a good place to start is to study Community Marketing & Insights’ (CMI) LGBT Tourism & Hospitality Survey. While a brand new study is pending, results from the most recent one, released just over a year ago, sheds some light on this demographic’s preferences and concerns. For example, LGBTs strongly prefer to travel to destinations that they consider safe and do not have laws that discriminate against LGBT residents and travelers. Ninety-four percent of LGBT Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, and 93 percent of LGBT Millennials agree that a country or destination’s reputation as being safe influences their travel choices, while only 11 percent overall, with negligible variance by generation, indicated that they are willing to travel to a country that has laws against LGBT people.

With nearly one-third of those surveyed giving it a favorable nod, San Francisco is clearly perceived as doing the best job in reaching out to the LGBT community.
With nearly one-third of those surveyed giving it a favorable nod, San Francisco is clearly perceived as doing the best job in reaching out to the LGBT community.

When asked (as a write-in question) which destinations have done the best job outreaching to the LGBT market over the past 12 months, the list is remarkably similar to the results four years prior. This suggests that a destination’s LGBT reputation takes years to develop. The concentration of North American destinations also suggests that U.S. residents are not seeing consistent promotion from locales outside of North America.

Best Job Outreaching to the LGBT Market

Large Cities

San Francisco     32%

New York            23%

Las Vegas            15%

Toronto                12%

Fort Lauderdale                8%

Chicago                8%

Los Angeles/Hollywood                6%

Philadelphia       6%

Miami/Miami Beach       5%

Montreal             4%

Small Cities

Key West             8%

Palm Springs      6%

Provincetown, MA          5%

Linda Barber,
Linda Barber,

Advice From Our All Stars

Here are some choice words of wisdom from our 2014 and 2012 “Top 25 All Stars” — veteran travel agents who, over the years, have not only survived but also thrived.

“I keep irregular office hours and speak with my clients whenever it is convenient for them. They have my personal cell number and I do answer the phone at 3 a.m.”

—Linda Barber,

“I don’t ask for the sale. It’s a given. I have a ‘shut up, stupid’ philosophy. If you talk too much, you talk yourself out of a sale.” 

—Diane Bower, Diane Bower Agency

“Don’t let it be about money. Clients need to trust you.”

—Kelly Brock, AAA Carolinas

“Know your product, believe in it and travel as often as you can. Experience firsthand what you are selling.”

—Lynn Ciccarelli, Cassis Travel Services

“I continually educate myself through webinars and contacts about countries, hotels or ships — three to five webinars weekly.”

—Linda de Sosa, Woodlake Travel

“Honesty and resourcefulness have been the key qualities in establishing my credibility with clients.”

 —Franca Di Spigna, Valerie Wilson Travel, Inc.

“It is my job to engage [every client] in the conversation and get them excited about their trip.”

—Gina Griffin, FROSCH

“Listen, listen, listen [to the client].” 

—Sharon Campbell Little, Wedding and Honeymoon Travel Group

Willa Owens,  Creative Vacations
Willa Owens, Creative Vacations

“I often carry four business cards with me, no matter what event I’m attending. I’m always looking for the next client.”

—Willa Owens, Creative Vacations

“I’ve incorporated technology and high-touch service to stay connected to clients [but] technology never replaces personal relationships; I take time to form a friendship with clients.”

—Sue Ratliff, Sea the World Cruises & Tours

“I always show a client what they can get for their price range, and then show them what they can get if they stretch their budget.”

—April Schmitt, Divine Destination Weddings & Honeymoons

“I never sell something I don’t believe in.”

—Nancy Yale, Cruise and World Travel

From new hotel brands aimed at Millennial travelers to the latest travel updates from the Caribbean and Las Vegas, we've rounded up the latest trends to keep in mind to help you grow your business in 2016. 


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