If there’s one thing that never changes about the travel industry, it’s the fast pace of change. So, it’s no surprise that four travel agents recently told Travel Market Report about changes they are making to their business models as 2018 draws to a close. Whether it’s reconsidering brick-and-mortar, looking for new ways to retain talent, or reaching out to “social influencers,” it’s always a good time to consider innovation, they said.
At Hill Barrett Travel in Redmond, Washington, for example, Alnoor and Karimah Dossa are finally taking the plunge and letting go of their brick-and-mortar agency. For the past 10 years, the couple has been studying new destinations by picking up and moving to them for weeks on end. Now, they say, they are gone so much that they don’t need a home office at all.
Get out there and travel
“We came from Kenya 10 years ago, and when we got to the United States, we were surprised to find that many travel agents had never traveled. So, right from the get-go, we felt that was the way to differentiate ourselves,” Karimah said. “And the better the technology got, the more we found we could travel for long periods; the Cloud has made that possible.”
When they are on the road, the Dossas rent office suites and work there for four or five hours straight on a regular basis. At home, the “100 percent leisure FIT luxury” agency is open by appointment only.
This year, said Alnoor, “Europe is largely oversold. As a travel advisor, we can explain the alternatives — and right now, the value is Africa.” So, the couple has just returned from five weeks exploring Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia and South Africa. Next, they head east, to Thailand and Cambodia, “using the Silver Muse as a way to get around,” and hiring local drivers at each port to show them the sights.
“We want to make sure our clients get off the ship and do things,” Karimah said. “They don’t want city tours and packaged shore excursions. It’s so much fun to say, ‘There’s this little café on the corner; you have to go there and get the pistachio gelato.’”
And when she explains her fees to new clients, there is nothing like being able to say, “Oh you are interested in Italy? I’ve just been there and I have many ideas for you,” she said.
Mingling the generations
At Global Escapes in Athens, Georgia, Tiffany Hines isn’t yet ready to let go of her office — or of the teaching opportunities it offers when young agents mingle with the older pros.
“So many agencies have gone home-based, but to me a brick-and-mortar location lends legitimacy and is a place to meet with clients,” Hines said. Still, “young women want to work from home. So, our push is to create a hybrid, where they first work in the agency for three years, learning and collaborating.”
Hines’ 70-year-old mom, who founded the agency, does just that — and Hines appreciates the wealth of knowledge she brings to the table, even part-time. "We learn a lot from the Baby Boomer generation. We have all these knowledgeable people, and before they all step out of the business, we have to train a new generation.”
In what many say is a booming travel environment, “we’re in a growth mode,” Hines said. “I plan to hire six to nine new people in the next three years so we can cover the globe and rotate in and out of the office.”
She is also brushing up her management skills, reaching out to industry veteran Bob Joselyn to consult and joining the TAMS benchmarking group. And, she is definitely charging fees. “Our consultants feel so much more on-the-hook when someone takes out a checkbook and pays $300 to hire them. It makes them feel valued; they feel like they have to step up. And then they go the extra mile,” she said.
Partnering for growth
Beth Malloch Schulberg, owner of the $2.5 million agency Cruise and Travel Specialists in Gastonia, North Carolina, meanwhile, is looking to grow from her current 10 independent contractors by hosting other agents.
“I’ve had three experienced agents come and ask me to host them,” she said. “They want someone local who is a member of the Signature consortium, so they can get Signature benefits. They will still have their own agencies, but if they affiliate with Cruise and Travel Specialists, they get the benefits and I get a piece of the action.”
And at Riverdale Travel, which was acquired in July by Minneapolis-based Schilling Travel, Sandy Anderson is looking to grow with a new customer base that she is reaching through social media.
“I’m doing a lot with influencer marketing,” she said. “I’m very cautious about whom I partner with, but I am looking for the right professional brand managers to work with to reach the Millennials who shop online.”
In September, she hosted a brunch for a dozen top Minneapolis influencers to talk about the value a travel agency can add — and to find partners to promote Riverdale Travel on their blogs and in social media. One influencer, for example, works with a local brewery and Jaguar cars, brands that are likely to have a following among the young and active demographic Anderson, too, is looking to bring on as clients.