|All photos by Meagan Drillinger|
For all those travel agent naysayers out there, and yes there still are a few, we'd like to introduce you to the 2013 class of Young Leaders. The fourth annual Young Leaders Conference (YLC) kicked off in Las Vegas September 9, with gusto and enthusiasm from the travel industry's rising stars. What has become apparent is that this new class of agents is no longer the fresh-faced, naive neophyte eager to sop up as many basic tips as they can. Not anymore. This generation of travel agent is now seasoned, experienced and knowledgeable enough to rub elbows with the big kids of travel. They've got the basics down pat. They are ready, and have already begun, to excel.
"By the fourth year [of this conference], agents are not new to the industry. They are in it now and they are looking to thrive," says Joe Pike, senior editor at Travel Agent magazine and co-host of this year's event.
"YLC is great because it combines how to break into the industry when you are new, but also how to go beyond the basic 101 education and really position yourself to take over the driver seat of the industry, because we are the future," Samantha Erickson, event marketing specialist and YLC co-creator, adds.
The day-long series of seminars and roundtables brought together top agents under 40 to network with each other and to learn from their peers and suppliers.
The Perfect Pitch
The agents selected for the panel discussions flexed their travel muscles and were able to demonstrate why they are thriving at such young ages. It is because they get the business. They get the industry. They know how to hone in on a potential client and close that deal. One of the most engaging panel discussions was titled The Perfect Pitch. Beth Jenkins of McCabe World Travel and Ryan Mielke of Regency Travel shared their know-how on how to make the agent relevant to the consumer.
"The best way to show your value is to show your worth," says Jenkins. "If you are part of a consortia or you work with a wholesaler, show off the special benefits you can get. If you are sending a client to Europe to a hotel where they get free breakfast based on a relationship that you have, share that."
Mielke's advice is to make a bullet list of why it is best to book travel with you or your agency. Keep the bullet list handy so when potential clients come calling, you have your mantra at the ready. "Throw a few bullet points at them and give them the spiel. Practice it. It becomes repetitive and starts rolling off your tongue," he says.
The WOW Factor
Once you've secured the client, it now comes time to show them the fancy flourishes that you can make happen because you are the best agent for the job. This panel included Andrey Zakharenko of Russian Connections and Daniela Harrison of Avenues of the World Travel to discuss the WOW factor and how to upsell to high-rolling clients, and even to those just looking for a budget getaway. By leveraging the little things, which makes the world of difference, agents can open the door to referrals, which is what it's all about, anyway.
"Remember the little things," says Harrison. "Remember if your client has pets and what their names are. Put that into their vacation planning, as well. If I have clients that I know have four or five dogs, I set up boarding for the dogs and make sure they are taken care of while my clients are on vacation. I make recommendations on babysitters and nannies. I let my clients know that I care about them having a relaxing time on vacation."
"The key to any successful WOW factor is to undersell and over deliver," Zakharenko adds.
One of the best ways to WOW your clients is to WOW your suppliers and make them feel appreciated for the care that they show your clients. This strengthens your relationship with the supplier and thus leads to continued special treatment for your customers when they travel.
"I send them flowers or chocolates and let them know that they took care of my clients," says Zakharenko.
"Thank you notes go a long way to suppliers. Call them and say thank you. Don't only call them to complain. they need positive feedback, too," Harrison adds.
The important thing to note about wowing your clients is that it doesn't cost you much. Sometimes, if you have great relationships with suppliers, it doesn't cost you a thing. But this small gesture can be the difference in whether or not you get repeat business or a referral.
Finding Your Niche
Of course, it is impossible to be a specialist in everything. The difference between a good agent and a great agent is one who has a specialization and can be an expert in a certain area. The right way to specialize depends on your personal goals, clients and agency. Katie Ladomerszky from The Cosmopolitan, Carlos Melia of CarlosMeliaBlog.com, Jim Smith of Jim SmithCTIE, Inc. Special Needs Group and Ron Fenska of G Adventures came together to discuss finding a niche.
"It always comes back to education and qualification of your customers," says Fenska. On the surface, G Adventures appears to be an adventure travel company. But if you dig a little deeper into the brand, you find more about what they are about. "We view ourselves not so much as a travel company but as a social enterprise. We are into changing peoples' lives." Today's 60+-year-olds want the same type of experience that a 30-year-old wants. They want a different tone. "It all comes down to education, training with our sales people, to make sure that is fully understood."
"Sell what you know," says Smith. "If you can't do it well, find people that do. You can't know everything. This industry is too big and varied. You can't be a generalist and be really, really good."
Part of being really, really good is knowing what to do in a crisis. The agents broke into groups to discuss different damage control scenarios and then ran their solutions past a panel of experts, including Isaac Cymrot from Travel Insured International, Courtney Fitzgerald from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authoriy and Kier Matthews from Europe Express. Agents sounded off their best practices for crisis management, which once again proved just how much this new wave of agents knows. One response even prompted Matthews to answer with a simple, "You got it. That's exactly what you should do."
The conference wrapped with a round of applause and excited agents, following an hour-long networking session where agents swapped business cards and stories in one-on-one speed-dating style fashion. The agents then went on to a glamorous cocktail reception at TAO restaurant and nightclub at the Venetian, where all got to unwind and process the day.
"I think this year is a lot more interactive," says Mielke. "Tons of people are Tweeting, which is a lot better than last year. All in all the roundtable aspect causes people to be interactive and outgoing."
YLC first-timer Katelyn O Shaughnessy of TravelStore says, "I think it's great to get so many people together from all different consortia groups who otherwise would not have met. It is a collaborative group of young, committed travel professionals. It is great to be able to share experiences and hardships and talk about where we like to see this industry go."
And again, the key to any success is simply loving what you do, and there's no age requirement for that, which is why these young agents are thriving. "You love what you are doing," Pike says. "It doesn't sound like you are pitching a sale at all. It sounds like you are sharing a valuable secret."