Should auld ways of doing business be forgot? We asked some smart travel agents to share the biggest lessons they learned in 2019, and how they are implementing them to start the 2020s with a roar.
Here’s what they said:
1. There’s nothing like a good Pied Piper.
Kelly Neonakis-Morash credits a couple of customers who “just signed up for everything and brought all their friends along too” with pushing sales at TravelBug to new heights in 2019. “We have some groups that are almost fully booked just because of them, and we’re definitely looking for more Pied Pipers in 2020,” she says. To find some, listen to your friends and neighbors chatting and think out of the box about how to plan a trip that will excite them. If they are interested in soccer, bring along a soccer coach, or have one meet you for a day; if they are raising funds for a new soccer field, offer to make a donation for every person in the group. Make it customized and unique; instead of staying in a hotel for one destination wedding in a small town in Italy, for example, she rented out houses for everyone, so they felt what it was like to live there in the Middle Ages.
2. Take a chance on spec space. But start early.
Dream Vacations franchise owner Christy Mahon in 2019 began thinking about taking spec space on cruise ships, with a focus on “enticing itineraries where my clients can immerse themselves in places they have longed to visit,” like a unique all-Italy cruise. She started early in the year, leveraging Wave Season’s low deposits and emphasizing that customers had a full year to make payments; she booked the cabins as FITs until they moved into the group. Then she talked about pre- and post- itineraries; everyone extended their trip by six to 10 days. For 2020 she is cross-selling land and cruise spec groups to the various niches in her database, promoting trips to France in 2021 and 2022 to the wine lovers, the art lovers, the history buffs and the Paris lovers. “Ultimately, spec space is a long game,” she says. “But premium and river cruise lines, along with specialized land providers, make a great combination that serves my clients well and has a great ROI.”
3. Pay attention. And its caveat, it never hurts to ask.
Cheryl Scavron is taking her largest-ever group on a Caribbean cruise in 2020, thanks to an existing client who happened to mention that her church friends like to travel. Scavron jumped on the opportunity, met with the church board and got permission to host a breakfast for the congregation after 10:30 Mass one Sunday. She partnered with a supplier and ended up booking 20 cabins—including the priest—on the spot.
4. Build trust—but keep your eye on the ROI.
With sales soaring 30 percent in 2019 and 13 full-time employees, Gary Smith is more focused than ever on never letting go of the glue that holds his business together. “I’m a big believer in trust-based advertising,” he says. “We want to work with organizations people trust and get them to transfer that trust to us.” He looks for charities, symphonies and religious and arts organizations that have the clients he is looking for, swapping something to auction off at their fundraisers for an opportunity to market to the group. But in 2019 he noticed that “groups are an awful lot of work, and I wasn’t really seeing the ROI.” So for 2020 he’s looking more toward FITs and land vacations. For cruises, he is shifting his focus downstream, from the luxury to the contemporary cruise lines, as a hedge against a downturn as the Presidential election nears. “I believe that in a soft market clients will move down and that will be more stable,” he says. “That will be my bread and butter.”
5. Find ways to make things happen.
After being a top independent contractor for someone else for many years, Tammy Ruffini took the plunge in 2019 and opened Envision Travel, with nine ICs. But the budget is tight in her first year, and while she believes that “seeing is selling” and fams are key, they are costly. So she invited other travel advisors along on discounted group trips she is putting together herself in partnership with some of her favorite suppliers. Her first group, all fellow travel advisors, visited 26 resorts in Mexico over nine days. For 2020 her new dedicated Facebook page is promoting four fams; two already have sold out.
6. Get your name out there.
Like many travel agents, Sylvia Curbelo Longmire of Spin the Globe Travel has been blogging about her adventures for some time. But this year she is taking things a step further and producing an e-book. A wheelchair traveler herself, Curbelo is filling “a big gap in knowledge about accessible travel” by self-publishing an 80-page guidebook she hopes will be helpful—and also encourage wheelchair users to "step outside their comfort zone” and give her agency a call. She also applied to O Magazine and was named the first O Mag Insider in a wheelchair; that will bring an opportunity to try new products and partner with other lifestyle brands in the Oprah orbit in 2020.
7. Build group business by starting small and being patient.
Groups are difficult to put together and complicated to run, says Daniela Harrison; the real return comes from holding onto the members and rebooking them on future trips. So she is making sure to host events throughout the year that let fellow travelers from her 2019 groups rekindle their friendships—and book more trips together. “Groups are hard; to me the goal is what comes after the group,” she says. In 2020, she’ll be taking a group of six friends who met on an earlier trip to Botswana for a trip that’s “small but high end.”
8. Consider an annual contract.
When Kathleen Sullivan quit her job as a paralegal to become a travel agent, she brought along a different mindset about billing—and a dozen clients who agreed to pay an annual retainer of $2,500 for 2019, her first full year in business. For 2020, she is enrolling in Virtuoso’s Wanderlist program, which encourages clients to take a long-term view of travel planning and facilitates conversations about where they want to go next, often high-ticket bucket-list trips. Of her original 12 clients on retainer, meanwhile, 11 already have renewed for 2020.
What new ideas are you implementing for the Roaring 20s? We hope you will share them with Travel Agent magazine and your peers!