Managing client expectations is proving to be a critical skill for travel advisors in the current booking environment.
Amid a well-documented rise in demand and prices as pandemic-era travel restrictions ease, communicating clearly and early on in conversations about what clients can and cannot expect is essential, advisors say.
“One of the main things we’re trying to do is to get people’s expectations in the right place at the beginning, let them know that you may have your heart set on this hotel, but it may not be available,” said Kari Thomas, CTC, president of Will Travel in Langhorne, PA.
Katie Cadar director of leisure sales for Los Angeles-based TravelStore, said advisors need to be upfront with clients about current booking conditions. Her advice for advisors? “Take a breath. Be patient with your client. Be transparent. Talk to them about it. Explain it. See what you can do.”
Preparing the customer
Luxury advisor Catina Wilson of Travel Adventures 365 in Atlanta makes it a point to prepare customers for possible delays in her response time. “I set the expectation upfront [telling them], ‘It takes longer to get information and confirmation from suppliers because a lot of them laid off people during the pandemic. Be mindful that it may take me longer to get back to you.’
“It’s important to let customers know that if you don’t hear from me for a few days, it’s not because I’m giving you bad service,” Wilson added.
Thomas explains to her clients that staffing shortages are forcing some suppliers to operate at limited capacity, which affects availability.
“I liken it to what we’re seeing in our neighborhoods. You can’t get help at your local restaurant; they can’t get help at resorts either. So even though full capacity may be allowed, they can’t necessarily handle it. I put it in terms of things they’re dealing with every day. Our local coffee shop does not have as many tables as before the pandemic.”
Linda Imel, the owner of Kerrville (Texas) Travel, wants her clients to see what she’s dealing with their own eyes. “I have them come in so they can see what I’m looking at. I show them on whatever booking engine I’m using that it’s just not there.”
For Mallory Jones of You Deserve It Vacations in Fort Worth, Texas, steep airfares for travel to Mexico have been the biggest booking issue, so much so that she leads with the topic in client conversations.
“Right now, the first question I ask is, ‘Have you looked at airfare for your dates?’ If they say they haven’t, I say, ‘Let’s look at that real fast.’ I’ll pull it up and say, ‘This is what you’re looking at for airfare for those dates. Is that what you’re wanting to pay?’ and start the conversation there.
“I let them know that the airlines are still recovering, still trying to bring back all their people so they can get their flights out, so we have two options – we can either increase the budget or push the dates out a little further and see what we can get.”
You Deserve It Vacations has been proactive about pricing and availability in other ways. “We put out a newsletter and said to our clients that the days of last-minute travel and getting last-minute travel deals are over, so let’s plan, plan, plan; it is okay to start early,” Jones said.
Flexibility & creativity
Telling clients they may need to be flexible about their dates or their choice of hotel or even their destination while urging them to open their minds to new possibilities, often plays a big part in client conversations these days.
“Flexibility is key this year,” Thomas said. “I have customers who say, ‘We always stay at Hilton.’ Well, you might not get the Hilton this time. If what you first thought isn’t available, maybe this is a time to do something different.”
Advisors need to use their imaginations and be more resourceful than ever too. “We have to be creative and suggest alternative destinations they might not have considered.
“We always can find something,” Cadar said. “It might not be their first choice, but sometimes you can surprise them with something they may not have thought of that they’ll love.”
Thomas had a cruise client recently whose eyes were opened to a new style of travel when her first choice wasn’t available. “They were scheduled on one of the big ships to Alaska, but it didn’t happen. They went on one of the wilderness ones instead. It was not something she would normally do. She loved it.” Now the client is considering booking a similar product to other destinations.
Not surprisingly, advisors are urging clients to avoid missing out by acting quickly when they find availability for a trip they’re interested in. “We’re telling people that we don’t want to pressure them, but if it’s available, it may not be there next week,” Thomas said.
That extends to booking local options as well. At TravelStore, advisors recommend that clients book restaurants and excursions ahead of time, Cadar said. “I’ve had people in Hawaii who didn’t want to pre-book their excursions. When they got there, they couldn’t get the excursions they wanted.”
Wilson had a Jamaica-bound client who had his heart set on booking an exclusive private experience for his wife’s 50th birthday, but by the time he got back to Wilson the experience was no longer available.
Deferring dream trips
Sometimes the best advice is to postpone a trip altogether. Imel has been advising against booking Europe for this summer or fall, even though there’s space available. “I’m basically telling them that if this is something you really want to do, let’s book it for another time and not give you something subpar,” she said.
In fact, she’s refusing to book Europe for this summer or fall. “As a professional, I would just say no. I can’t do that to anybody. You can go into Rome, but nothing may be open. I don’t want anybody to be totally disappointed.”
Thomas is also concerned about ensuring a quality experience for clients and is warning them that if they go to certain destinations this year they may not get the experience they dreamed of.
“We’ve been explaining to people that if this was your bucket list dream trip, it might happen this year, but not everything may be open and you may have to wear masks. If this is the trip you’ve been dreaming of forever, this year may not be that. Let’s do that for 2022 or ’23 and book it now and do something different to get away now.”