It’s tempting to “go it alone,” but agents often select an agency group for automation, marketing tools, training, commission overrides and sales support. Some choose to purchase a travel franchise. Others prefer to affiliate with a host agency — and here’s how such independent agents can get maximum benefits.
Pick the Right Host: Ellen LeCompte, president, LeCompte Travel, Richmond, VA, a Travel Experts affiliate, tells “newbies” and experienced agents to evaluate return on investment, analyze start-up costs and monthly / annual fees and factor in “hidden costs” like insurance and travel expenses for training and conferences. Consider how much back-office support, marketing, invoicing and commission tracking support you’ll need? “Find out if they have the capability to provide that level of support,” stresses LeCompte. “Novice agents really need to consider not just if there is a comprehensive training program with follow up support, but what level it is.” Is it beginner or advanced?
“Change your mindset,” adds Trish Gastineau, president, Simply Customized Travel, Naples, FL, another Travel Experts affiliate. “Most agents, especially those of us who have been in the industry for awhile, come at the whole process from an employee mindset, rather than from an entrepreneurial mindset, and that is a huge mistake.” What’s best for your business — a percentage of commission or monthly fee? How timely are payments, asks LeCompte? Also, “Check out the office culture of the host agencies … to make sure your personalities and values match up,” says Gastineau. And ask if the host seems likely to fit your specific business model in five years.
Know the Ropes: “Using [my host] correctly has been critical to my success,” notes Kathleen Campbell of Camelview Travel, Phoenix, an independent contractor with MTravel. “Know your agency resources. You can’t use what you don’t know. Understand what your host can and cannot do for you.” Learn the roles and talents of each host team member assigned to you. Recently, Campbell couldn’t convey the look and feel of a property she’d never seen, and “I was selecting a honeymoon destination, so there was no room for error.” She tapped into the MTravel’s social network platform and within 20 minutes, 12 fellow agents with first-hand property experience reached out. “My peers helped me look like a rock star” to the clients, Campbell says.
After joining her host, Rachel Mooney of Changing Your Latitude Travel, LLC, Birmingham, AL, an independent agency in the Avoya Network, spent much time leveraging the agent operating system and maximizing it for her business: “By knowing the system inside and out, I was able to increase my efficiency and productivity early on.”
Network on All Levels: Gina Porter, a Dallas-based Nexion travel agent and independent contractor under Linda Sergeant of Far and Away Travel, New Jersey and Texas, networks at host events, the host’s conference and regional events. “The networking and training at these events is invaluable,” says Porter. During her host’s Luxury Travel Sales Summit, “I networked with other luxury agents, met luxury supplier executives, brainstormed marketing ideas with Nexion staff,” and learned about the Select Wellness Specialist Program, resulting in a new book of business focused on wellness vacations.
Make Time for Training: Training should be a priority. Lay out goals and timetables for host-offered training opportunities like Webinars, live Facebook events, conferences and training sessions. “You’ll enhance your product knowledge and learn new ways of communicating with prospects and clients,” says John Gawne, an independent Cruises Inc. vacation specialist, Virginia Beach, VA. Concurring is Michael Figueiredo, travel advisor, StruxTravel LLC, Miami, an independent contractor with MTravel: “To be successful, it’s important to be educated, first and foremost. Do all of the training that your host agency provides.” His host’s “Jump Start” training webinars gave him invaluable “how to’s.”
Tap into Host Mentors: “I like sharing ideas with other professionals about what is and isn’t working for our businesses,” emphasizes Connie Rush, owner, Creative Getaways LLC, Silverdale, PA, an independent agency in the Avoya Network. She’s taken her host’s “Mastermind Academy at Sea,” led by a behavioral specialist, mentor and life coach, on four different occasions. “Each time I have an ‘Aha’ moment, which keeps me coming back. I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone, fine-tuned my systems to work smarter…” and her sales are up too.
Embrace the Marketing: Gawne says host agency marketing programs are far less expensive than independent efforts, and “will get to more prospects.” Rush uses host marketing programs to “specialize in specific vendors and build my business without costing me personal marketing dollars.” If the host agency offers proprietary marketing or lead generation programs, agents say to participate fully and follow up diligently. Carefully compare costs and benefits of “enhanced” programs (beyond included marketing) such as greater numbers of direct mail addresses. Yes, there’s a cost, but what if just two or three more customers book with you?
Snuggle Up to the Support: “I don’t have the words to express the value of support services,” says Vernon Hale, independent vacation specialist, Cruises Inc., Dallas, TX. “Having a team of professionals to maintain your website, create advertisements, keep up with industry-wide specials, purchase block space discounts or even just run credit cards for an independent agent is priceless.”
Hosts can also help with resources for one-of-a-kind trips like a six-week African safari or around-the-world private jet adventure. If you’ve picked the right host, “it’s not what you know but who you know when booking high-end products,” stresses LeCompte, whose Travel Experts host is a Virtuoso member.
Just don’t expect a host to deliver special favors or perks for every client or situation, says Campbell: “I give myself 10 figurative ‘special favor chips’ every year and I only call in a chip when I really need it.”