Suppliers Tell Agents: Brand For Big Bucks
by Doug Gollan
Suppliers Tell Agents: Brand For Big Bucks

Keynote speaker Edie Rodriguez with Crystal crew. Photo: Facebook

Travel agents can make big dollars and create a powerful niche for themselves if they focus on branding and marketing, said top travel industry executives speaking at The Affluent Traveler Collection 2016 Symposium being held at the JW Marriott in Palm Springs. It first takes a plan; then when it comes to luxury, details and aesthetics count.

Keynote speaker Edie Rodriguez, president and CEO of Crystal Cruises, asked advisors to think about "what is your brand promise, which is different from your brand?" She told agents that while clients may be more casual today, agents, even if they work from home, should dress to impress. “You are selling a luxury product,” she told the audience, “even if Mark Zuckerberg wears a t-shirt.” Rodriguez said it's possible to dress nicely and give that high-end vibe without spending a king's ransom on fashion, telling the audience, "Nobody is going to turn over your collar and look at the label."

Gary Murphy, vice president of AmaWaterways, said a key to success in creating a unique and profitable luxury brand position is to focus on an area about which you are passionate, and then network to generate customers. He gave as an example a retailer who is an oenophile, and within 18 months has booked over 500 customers onto wines cruises as a result of relationships he developed with various vineyards. Murphy said the agent, “got in his car and drove up to see the wineries in Napa. He’s marketing to their lists.”

Jeff Lanzarotta, Director Global Leisure & Luxury Sales, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, said agents today have vastly stepped up their game when it comes to having business and branding plans. He related that as recently as five years ago, the hotel group ran a promotion asking agents to submit their marketing plans, “and we got one plan and a lot of questions."

Rick Baron, a 39-year veteran of Tauck, told agents that’s it’s possible to keep their brands fresh without changing their brand promise. He discussed how the tour market changed, noting that customers used to come “in their Sunday’s finest.” In a world that seems to revolve around social media and digital marketing, he told agents not to count out direct mail, saying the company closely tracks ROI and the mailman still delivers when it comes to sales.

John Berman, a former travel agent and president of Personalized Services, a Las Vegas DMC, said his company eschews social media, instead focusing on providing a “whatever your client needs” service that is white-labeled for retailers.

Baron, like others, said that to be effective, agents need to associate their brands with brands they know and understand, and do due diligence to make sure the brands they sell provide satisfied customers who recommend friends. Each of the panelists noted that being a travel agent focused on the luxury end of the market means more than just providing great service, but attention to details, from having a slick website down to quality business cards.

Rodriguez encouraged agents to focus on luxury, saying, “In real estate you spend as much time selling an $80,000 condo as an $8 million estate.” In the travel segment, she pointed to the top suites on the line’s round-the-world voyages, which sell for $500,000, as a way to ring the cash register with big commission checks. Its upcoming private jet air tour vacations running into the six figures offer similar high-margin opportunities. By having a well-positioned brand, brand promise, and marketing plan to back it up, smart agents can create partnerships with golf clubs and other high-end businesses to gain new clients.

Social media for agencies and agents is a powerful tool, but panelists said it is crucial that agencies make sure advisors post within brand rules. Rodriguez noted that her sales team has separate social media accounts for business from their personal accounts. Speaking after the session, one attendee noted, "Every time you touch the customer you are making a statement about your brand."

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