Travel advisors who have mastered selling groups know an industry secret: You can make more money in less time by specializing in group bookings. That is, once you have your strategies, processes, marketing, and relationships in place.
Here are a few questions to ponder and some profitability-building insider tips from travel advisors who have already been there and done that with resounding success.
Why sell groups?
Focusing on group travel allows advisors to spend less time on bookings while making higher commissions. Consider that it takes fewer hours to plan and book 25 people on one vacation package than to research and book 25 different vacations for 25 different people.
“Selling group travel is financially beneficial in that once the first transaction has been completed (whether that be signing the group contract or creating what we call the ‘anchor reservation’), you are then able to spend time connecting with clients who are seeking the same destination, dates, resorts, etc., instead of qualifying the clients and re-inventing the travel itinerary,” explains Lindsay Foerster, president/CEO of Foerster Travel Inc.
Also an important advantage to selling groups, from an agency operations standpoint, is: “Our agents benefit as well from resort and supplier programs in which they receive amazing bonus cash and complimentary room nights for the groups they book. This is a great incentive in selling wedding group travel,” says Liz Moore, MBA, CEO of Liz Moore Destination Weddings.
And one more key reason is that: “Selling group travel provides us with an excellent look into our future sales and revenue. Because we exclusively sell destination weddings, our groups are booking 12-24 months in advance, so we have a clear view of our pipeline. This helps us plan and budget our marketing a full year out,” says Shelli Nornes, president and CEO, Romance Travel Group.
What qualifies as a group?
The consensus among the travel advisors that we spoke to was that a booking of at least 10 rooms qualifies as a group. Nornes says, “We require a minimum of 10 rooms to confirm a contracted group with benefits. Any groups less than 10 rooms would be booked as an FIT flex group.”
Foerster notes that the “number of rooms and benefits both play a role in group travel. Many resorts have modified their group policies and procedures post-COVID and more rooms are required to travel to make up a group (typically 10).”
Regardless of the size of the group, one of the most important aspects of booking group travel is “for travel advisors to understand the contract they are signing with the resort or tour operator. Know the deadlines. Know the penalties. If you don’t understand something, ask. The advisor is taking on the responsibility that comes with signing the contract, and that can be scary! If you miss a deadline, it could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in penalties,” says Nornes.
Where do you start when talking to clients?
This is, perhaps, the most important part of selling group travel, in that it sets the tone for the entire experience.
“We have an initial planning call with the wedding couple to learn about their wants and needs,” describes Nornes, who specializes in destination weddings. “We discuss wedding dates, destinations, and overall experiences. After the couple has committed to working with us, we will provide them with a customized list of resorts that fit exactly what they described to us during our planning call.”
Moore, also a destination wedding expert, says, “Our priority with our clients is finding the perfect destination wedding resort that not only fits their budget but also best suits their overall travel needs. Clients can have guests coming from various other countries, and therefore it is very important to understand the scope of the entire group, before honing in on any particular resort and/or area. And then we center on our client’s wish list, swimmable beaches, gazebo or garden weddings, later night receptions, etc., all come into play in finding the perfect resort for our clients.”
Is it important to have a group leader?
Whether for a destination wedding or any type of group travel, it is most efficient for the travel advisor to identify and liaise with a single person who represents the group in terms of their travel needs and wants.
“I have found over the years that working with one group leader, as opposed to many decision-makers, has proved to be beneficial during the qualifying stage of the selling process,” describes Foerster. “We have an open and honest conversation about different destinations and why resorts would be beneficial for the group in its entirety. We discuss group amenities and activities that are available on and off property that the group will enjoy. Some groups are more budget conscientious than others, so we typically pick destinations/resorts that will fit the bill for the entire group, and upsell the members of the group that are looking for a little added luxury to their vacation, i.e., preferred clubs/concierge service/butler rooms or suites.”
Which destinations work well for groups?
Mexico and the Caribbean continue to come in as top destinations for groups, in part because of the many options in the all-inclusive resorts category, as well as the ample and cost-effective airlift.
Which resources help with group bookings?
“We tend to work with partners who have really solid group departments,” says Foerster. “Selling a group is quite easy - it's the servicing during travel that can prove to be challenging if there are flight delays and cancellations or transportation/resort check in processes that are not up to industry standards. Typically where there is one issue with a reservation, there can be several, if information has not been adequately communicated by all parties involved, i.e., the travel advisor, tour operator group department, DMC, and resort. It really takes a village to execute a seamless group experience.”
How hands-on do you need to be?
On the question of how hands-on to be in destination with their client groups, travel advisors need to listen carefully and take their cues from the designated group leader, or the bride in the case of a destination wedding.
As Moore relays: “Some of our clients are very laid back when it comes to their destination wedding. Their focus is on the fun-in-the-sun aspect of having their guests meet in one place to celebrate their wedding and then keep the party going. For other couples, the décor, ambiance, and their wedding are the highlight of their plans. And therefore, more careful attention to detail comes into play.”
Nornes relies strategically on her industry partners. “We have built excellent relationships with our partner resorts, and are confident in the wedding planning experience they will provide to our mutual clients. We are travel experts, not wedding planners. We leave wedding planning to the pros!”
And for Foerster, who is a wedding planner as well as a travel advisor and agency owner, she is able to determine early on in the process if the bride is going to need additional assistance in planning her wedding. She also offers additional planning packages whereby she will travel with the group and assist with day-of coordination if the bride chooses. Even if Foerster does not provide in-person support in-destination, she is available as a liaison in case the bride needs assistance in communicating with the resort's wedding department or in handling questions or concerns.
Is a niche important?
In a word, yes. There are many resources online that delve into why having a travel niche is essential for advisors who want to work smarter and not harder. Furthermore, travel experiences and itineraries can be built around just about any type of group that gathers either in person or online to share a common hobby or purpose.
For the sake of this article, we will continue with the theme of destination weddings as a chosen niche. Moore explains the benefits of having such a specialty for the agents and the agency: “For us, exclusively working with destination wedding couples and vow renewal couples only in groups allows us to target our SEO towards group wedding travel only. We do this through social media and paid ads.
“Additionally, we are able to create great relationships with hoteliers and resorts that offer destination weddings. It also provides a targeted niche agency for clients to be able to find us uniquely over a regular travel agency that may work with FIT, group, corporate, and wedding travel. Our agents become experts solely in destination wedding travel. It gives us a big edge over travel agents who work in many different areas of travel.”
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