It's not every day that around 100 of the industry's youngest and brightest stars gather together. But when they do, be prepared for an explosion of lively debates, vivacious networking and key tips for climbing to the top.
The third annual Young Leaders Conference took place November 26 at the Palazzo Resort in Las Vegas as the precursor to Questex Media Group's Luxury Travel Exchange. Dozens of travel agents, all under 40 years old, came together with suppliers for a day packed with educational seminars, roundtables and networking.
"It's good to see so many faces, new and old, that all equally share a passion for travel and a passion for business," says Bernadette Mari, senior marketing manager and conference chairwoman, Questex Hospitality + Travel.
"Every year this conference seems to get better and better and it just never gets old working with so many people who are so passionate about mastering a new career or in some cases maintaining a successful one," says Joe Pike, senior editor of Travel Agent magazine, and one of the MC's of the event. "The best thing about YLC is that while we tend to focus on a lot of familiar topics, we always introduce something new every year. People always leave with a valuable takeaway."
Grooming Your Clients
One of the most important takeaways from this year's event was the subject of fees, which seemed to be a hot button issue among everyone in the room. During a panel session with Heather Christopher of Classic Travel at Tackett's Mill, Caitlin Murphy of FROSCH Classic Cruise & Travel and Lia Batkin of In The Know Experiences, the three advisors discussed ways to keep clients and manage their expectations. During this discussion, panelists uncovered ways agents could strike the best balance for themselves and travel business. Fees played heavily in the discussion.
"We charge fees in our office," says Christopher. "Everyone has their own system. What I run into is agents not being comfortable charging them and not knowing what to say. The more you practice saying that you charge fees, the more you'll believe it and the client will understand. When you're confident, they'll respect it right back and have no issues with it."
For Batkin, there's a method to the madness of charging fees. "I believe it's better to have 10 fantastic clients that do a lot of business with you, than 100 that do just a little bit," she says. "Consumers have been trained to think that the Internet can do something for them. But by booking with you, if you charge a fee, it shows that you are the expert. You are their person. Feel confident in charging fees. No one works for free."
For advisors who are investing their time attending conferences such as this one, trade shows, fam trips and more, it is important to note that time is valuable. "Even as a young agent, you spin your wheels to please everyone. Don't be a doormat. You want to provide a good service, but stand your ground. Feel comfortable and confident," says Murphy.
For those agents that don't charge fees, it was asked whether or not their knowledge has been taken advantage of by clients who felt no obligation to book through them. Michael Majcherczyk of Classic Travel, and one of Travel Agent magazine's 35 Under 30, shared a story with us about one such occasion.
"Being here at Young Leaders Conference, I learned a lot," he says. "Recently I was booking a honeymoon for a client. I did all the work, showed them the amount for the trip and revealed a $75 agent fee. The client decided not to book with me and booked on their own. I should have charged a non-refundable deposit. There needs to be a way to integrate that into my business," he says.
Another agent shared, "I don't charge fees, but I'm starting to think I need to."
"I believe in fees," says Jill Taylor, an advisor with JETSET World Travel, Inc. "The first year that my company started charging fees we made over $100,000 in fees alone. We believe we are charging for our knowledge and our expertise."
However, there are advisors like Stacy Small of Elite Travel who do not charge fees. "My client base is around 27 and 28 years old. They are Silicon Valley rockstars who know the Internet. If I charged them a fee, they are capable of booking travel on their own," she says. "My clients spend an average of $30,000 per trip when they book with me, so all I ask is for referrals to their friends." Small does, however, charge a 10 percent cancellation fee.
Getting from Point A to Point B
During an opening panel session, it was discussed where agents can go along their career path. The career for a travel agent varies, so how do you ensure that you are on the right path that fits you and meets the goals you have in mind? Sara Butruff, owner of Travel Leaders-Apple Valley, Vanessa Sawtell-Jones of Worldview Travel, Beverly Hills and Michelle Mangio, owner of Magical Escapes Vacations, had some insight to share.
"It is important to show why travel means so much to you and to convey that passion to your clients," Mangio says. "If you're able to get in front of a client and speak with passion, you will close the sale." Mangio, a specialist in destination weddings and honeymoons, suggests becoming a specialist to gain a client base, who will then trust you to book other types of trips. "As you create that brand of 'you,' that specialist, you gain a reputation and people will come to you for areas outside your expertise. They know you are good and will take the time no matter where they go, even if you don't bill that as your specialty," she says. "One of the things I love about Young Leaders Conference and Luxury Travel Exchange is sharing ideas and growing on how we can be successful. In order to be that expert, you have to not be shy about tooting your own horn."
Success doesn't always come easily. In fact, most success stories go hand-in-hand with stories about failure and overcoming it. During a panel discussion with Daniela Harrison of Avenues of the World Travel, Kyle Oram of KVI Travel, Stacy Small of Elite Travel and Jill Taylor of JETSET World Travel, Inc., advisors discuss some of their biggest mistakes and how that helped them succeed as agents.
"The biggest lesson I learned is learning how to say no," says Harrison. "If I have someone walk in who I know is going to be difficult, I now say no. You work so hard to make yourself a reputation and a good name and get referrals. A bad reputation spreads 200 times faster than a good one."
"Know your boundaries," says Oram. "Say this is what I'm good at, and this is what I'm not good at."
Knowing the structure that works best for you is also key. Don't put yourself in a business situation that doesn't fit your style, says Small.
The Big Points
After a full day of discussions and debates, advisors walked away having gained valuable information in three main categories. In terms of marketing, in addition to social media, advisors find that direct mailings, presence at trade shows, reviews on Yelp and networking with regular, local media outlets are the best ways to grow your client base.
In terms of recruiting new, young agents, owners believe it's best to start them young - at the college level. Hiring interns and students in their sophomore and junior years are the best ways to build a youthful base that will stay in the business for years to come.
And going back to the sticky subject of fees, most everyone we met with at YLC charges fees. Most still charge fees even if the booking is upwards of $50,000 because of the amount of time that that kind of booking takes up. For those who are uncomfortable charging fees, however, a deposit is a great alternative, which still ensures that an agent will make a profit even if a client decides to book elsewhere.
"I learned so much from Young Leaders Conference," says Ryan Mielke, Regency Travel. "I haven't had a lot of opportunities to come to these types of conferences, so I was determined to get to this one. I'll be back next year."
Visit www.travelagentcentral.com for our exclusive coverage of this year's Luxury Travel Exchange International.