When you have the money to hire a consultant, a lawyer or accountant, peers may become a less urgent resource. But for many travel agents, the thoughtful advice of a mentor is the most economical and efficient way to propel their business and their career.
Beth Johnston, travel designer at Beth's Beautiful Getaways in Pinckney, Michigan, has had multiple mentors on a variety of subjects since she launched her company nearly two years ago.
Tami Santini, owner/operator at Paradise Getaways in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has been a great assistance to Johnston, especially helping her launch into her destination wedding and romance travel niche. Brianna Glenn, owner of Milk and Honey Travels in San Diego, helped with Johnston’s website.
And Heather Christopher has helped Johnston build her Hawaii expertise.
Once you think you found the right mentor or mentee, making that relationship work can be tricky when your career is a busy one, and life gets in the way.
Travel Market Report spoke with travel agents and industry executives to ask them about their experience both as a mentor, and a mentee, to help guide our readers in getting the most out of these relationships. What we heard should not surprise you, but likely needs reinforcing.
Establish trust early on
Trust needs to be established early between both parties, including a commitment to respecting each other’s time and establishing expectations.
Lisa Hoehn, CCTE, GTP, vice president of global corporate sales, Altour, Los Angeles, connected with Jenn Smukler in 2016 through an online, self-service mentorship program operated by WINiT, an organization focused on networking and career development for women in the travel, meeting, event and exhibition industries.
While the online system thought they were a match, it was that first call that set them up for success.
“It was such a fantastic first call. We built that trust very, very quickly,” said Smukler, director of sales, meetings and events at Ovation Corporate Travel, in New York. “I could hear that we were speaking the same language immediately, both from a professional and personal side. I knew we could have those difficult conversations about work-life balance, which is important to me right now.”
Carrie Clark, who today is a certified professional coach and office manager in New Jersey, credits her introduction call with Karen deKanter-Brennan as launching their mentorship towards success, as well.
“It was so quick to become comfortable with Karen. She was so welcoming and open to what I was thinking about, and what I wanted to learn,” said Clark. She chose deKanter-Brennan, vice president of sales and marketing at CorpTrav, Lombard, Illinois, for assistance in building her social media and marketing skills.
Heather Christopher, who has been a travel agent for about 11 years and credits much of her success to having had generous mentors herself, feels more trust with a mentee when their initial questions reflect knowledge about the subject matter they are inquiring about and a commitment to building a business.
“It’s pretty easy for me at this stage to gauge by their questions whether they are serious about being an agent, and whether it is worth my time to invest in a relationship with them,” Christopher said.
President of her own business, Heather Christopher Travel Consulting, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Christopher has at times been inundated with requests through Facebook groups, and so recently has grown very selective in taking on mentees.
Destination wedding guru and travel agent Lisa Sheldon sees a lot of new agents posting on Facebook asking for the most basic advice, and believes experienced agents with mentor inclinations should be careful.
“You get some agents who are all over the place with their questions, have no idea of the size of the industry, about the importance of focusing on a niche. It’s so easy to get sucked in,” said Sheldon, who also serves as executive director at the Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association.
“Mentoring is so important, but if someone is looking to learn the basics, they should either pay for a mentoring program or pay for a host agency with professionals to advise them,” she said.
Set a schedule, but remain flexible
DeKanter-Brennan said she was very impressed with how, on their first call, Clark had predefined goals in both her personal and professional life, and a timeline for achieving these goals (approximately six months). They agreed to half-hour phone calls, once a month, with the option for questions and conversations via text or telephone when needed in between.
Also, Clark would have “homework” to accomplish and report in on at their next call, with deKanter-Brennan assessing her efforts and holding her accountable for staying on task.
Hoehn and Smukler settled on monthly calls, as well. “We decided that was realistic, given our busy jobs and living on opposite sides of the country,” Clark said.
“We also thought it was the right amount of time for me to accomplish things in between. Anything more frequent would have been too much. Anything less frequent would have made us a little out of touch.”
While establishing goals and a set schedule can be helpful, mentors and mentees need to be equally good at adapting to work and life changes.
DeKanter-Brennan got married in September 2016, in the middle of her mentorship with Clark. Wedding planning shrank her availability and mindshare during that summer. “There was a mutual respect for how busy life is, and we worked around it,” she recalled.
Prepare to just listen and not offer solutions
Like in all great relationships, sometimes all someone wants is a sympathetic ear to listen, and good mentors learn quickly how to either intuit their mentee’s needs, or openly ask about them. “The first key is being present. You need to turn off your technology, put your phone in your pocket or purse," said deKanter-Brennan.
In her mentorship with Clark, deKanter-Brennan often would ask: "Do you need me to listen, or is there something I can help with?”
At other times, listening opens avenues for the mentee to solve their own problems. Good mentors are good listeners, said deKanter-Brennan, and they ask good questions to help the mentee find the answers they are seeking on their own.
Be prepared to step out of the mentorship for further growth
Mentors also need to understand their own limitations, and when it is appropriate to introduce their mentee to someone within their professional circle.
“I’m such a fan of referral interviews for something you are trying to solve that someone you know can help with,” said deKanter-Brennan. “It’s so important to let your ego step back, and say ‘I don’t know enough about this, but I can introduce you to someone who does.’”
Clark appreciated those referrals. “I didn’t have to get on the call and explain myself. And everyone had such a strong connection to Karen, that they had a commitment to helping me,” she said.
Stepping outside of the mentorship can also prepare both parties for the ending of the formal relationship, several subjects interviewed for this story said. But most, if not all, said the mentor/mentee experience formed lifelong bonds they still rely on today.
“I don’t think the relationship ever ended,” Smukler said. “I can go to Lisa with problems, issues, difficult situations, even now.”