How One Travel Agency Learned How to Handle High-Tech Clients

by Marilee Crocker
How One Travel Agency Learned How to Handle High-Tech Clients

Jay Johnson. 


Sometimes a single phone call can change the trajectory of a travel agency’s business practically overnight. That’s what happened at Coastline Travel Advisors of Garden Grove, California. One call yielded a huge win for the agency, along with some big headaches.

It was about five and a half years ago that a leisure client suggested that Coastline Travel Advisors contact his employer, a Fortune 500 tech company, about handling its team-building trips. “It was one phone call saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you contact my admin? They’re planning a trip to Cancun. Maybe you can help them,’” recalled Jay Johnson, owner and president of Coastline Travels Advisors.

Today, that tech company generates about $10 million in annual travel, or about 20 percent of Coastline Travel Advisors’ $50 million in annual sales. It is the agency’s most profitable client, in addition to generating a lot of spinoff leisure business.

To reach that point, Coastline Travel Advisors, a Virtuoso agency that specializes in luxury travel, had to learn valuable lessons about working with tech sector clients.

Hush-hush
The client company is a well-known tech giant whose name Johnson is not at liberty to divulge. “We’re not supposed to promote or advertise the fact,” he explained. For security reasons, the client’s name is never used in hotel or airport signage.

Coastline Travel Advisors handles about 40 groups a year for the firm, bringing together computer engineers from around the world so remote teammates can learn to work together by having fun together. “We make them share rooms, and they have to be social. They play games. It’s a way to get these engineers to collaborate,” Johnson said.

On one recent trip, the client spent about $500,000 to fly 300 people to Lake Tahoe for two days. As with all such trips, Coastline Travel Advisors handled all the details, from negotiating hotel space and arranging transportation and meals, to planning team-building events, scheduling guest lecturers and providing a staff member for onsite support. “We pretty much do everything,” Johnson said.

Efficient online processes
One key to servicing tech clients is providing efficient online services, Johnson said. “You have to capture a ton of data in a very short period of time. We’ve come up with an online registration form about their likes and dislikes. It’s all based on logic, so how you answer a question is going to prompt a different [follow-up] question, and they like that.”

Another big requirement for this client is access to capital, lots of capital. Coastline Travel Advisors pays all trip costs upfront and is not reimbursed by the client until 60 days after a trip is completed. “At any given time, they may owe us over $1 million, just from the float, so that can be a challenge,” Johnson said.

Such challenges are well worth it, and not only because of the $10 million in group bookings. The team-building trips have spawned a good deal of leisure business. “For every person that goes on a group trip, we are able to capture their name and address for our mailing list. It’s thousands of names of people that make over $100,000 a year, and they obviously travel, too. It’s definitely helped our business,” Johnson said.

Engineers are, well, different
Working with clients from the tech sector has been a learning experience. “Engineers are not the easiest people in the world to work with. They’re great people, but they’re definitely different,” Johnson said.

One difference is the huge amount of research that they typically do about their chosen travel destinations. “When they contact you about, let’s say a safari, they know more about the lodges than a normal person, and sometimes more than our advisors. We actually learn from them.”

Tech clients want service from their travel advisors, but it has to be a collaboration, Johnson said. “They want to be a part of the process way more than your typical client. They’re looking for someone to tell them the decision they’ve made for which lodge to go to is accurate; they’re looking for validation.”

Another distinction is that tech clients don’t want to talk on the phone, so nearly all communications are by email, text or WhatsApp. Often those communications take place at unusual hours, even for the corporate business. “The hours they work are completely different than most clients. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up on a Sunday and have messages or questions from them,” Johnson said.

A scary six months
Some of the biggest challenges for Coastline Travel Advisors came early on. Within short order of landing its first group for the client, the agency was also awarded the firm’s entire groups account. It was great news, but it also created a damaging ripple effect with potentially devastating repercussions.

“When we first took over the account, we became inundated overnight with new business. It was drowning out our core leisure business, since I was frantically moving our leisure agents over to group sales in order to handle the new flood of corporate business,” Johnson said.

Service levels for leisure clients suffered, prompting some longtime clients to leave. Some employees also quit because they didn’t like their new roles.

To make matters worse, Johnson said, the agency nearly lost the groups business. “Our new client realized they had inundated us and began to pull back new groups. It was a worst-case scenario.”

Fortunately, the agency managed the growth. Today, its leisure business is stronger than ever, and its corporate business is growing at a manageable rate, said Johnson. Still, he said, “it sure was scary there for a good six months.”

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