It is the single most important difference between travel advisors and online travel agents (OTAs): traveling to a destination can develop the expertise, contacts and passion that set agents apart from any web-based booking engine.
Nearly 300 travel agents attended this year’s American Society of Travel Agents’ Destination Expo (ADE) in Greece. Most were intent on either reintroducing themselves to long-ago memories or making their inaugural visit, and bringing those experiences and knowledge back to their office.
“Anyone can go online and research a destination. But there is nothing better than visiting,” said Jay Ellenby, ASTA chairman and owner of Safe Harbors Travel, Baltimore, Maryland, speaking at a press conference during the Expo. “The agents attending are learning, educating themselves. They are taking that back to their clients. This type of event puts them at a higher level.”
“It’s so important for American agents to come to something like this,” said Konstantinos Tzioras, director, Europe for Travelway Tourism & Shipping, an exhibitor at this year’s ADE. “Mykonos has 15 beaches, and all of them are different. You cannot imagine all of the villas, the food, on the island unless you come and experience them for yourself.”
For two specific American travel agents — Lynda Phillippi, owner of Renaissance Travel and Events in Portland, Oregon; and Lisa Sheldon, owner of I Do Island Weddings in Janesville, Wisconsin — their decision to attend ADE was extremely purposeful.
Phillipi regularly travels to Europe, and was in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway last summer, but hadn’t visited Greece in about five years. Back then, she took a Mediterranean cruise that also included Italy, so her Greece stops were very brief. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that she has never booked a client with Greece as their primary destination.
So this year, Phillipi registered for her first ADE, to establish relationships with local vendors and tour operators, see for herself the logistics of getting around Greece, and develop an itinerary for a potential 2019 group trip she wants to sell.
Phillipi also booked a pre-expo, 4-day itinerary with Celestyal Cruises. “I wanted to experience the cruise line in advance, so the pre-conference fam was a wonderful opportunity for me to give the line a shakedown and see whether it will work for our clients or whether it might be too ‘European’ for Americans.”
For Sheldon, this was her first trip to Greece, and her return to Europe after a 14-year hiatus. Like Phillipi, she was looking to personally experience getting around the country, especially the islands, and to get a feel for the region for her honeymoon and destination wedding clients.
Sheldon coordinated her trip with travel agent colleague and friend Brenda Fernandez, from Los Cabos, Mexico; and sought to fulfill several dreams, including experiencing the ancient ruins, places she had read about and seen in movies and pictures, and visit Santorini on a post-fam excursion.
“Thirty years ago, when I started at the travel school I attended in Fort Wayne, Indiana, there was a painting on the wall of Santorini. I fell in love with that painting, the city’s domes, the blue sea, and I fell in love with the idea of traveling there some day,” Sheldon said.
The last time Sheldon booked a client to Greece was in 2003, sending those customers on an escorted tour. “They absolutely loved it,” she said.
But as she found her niche in romance travel over the last 15 years, Sheldon shifted her focus to Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii. However, “today, couples are often well-traveled, more culturally advanced and don't necessarily want the sun-and-fun destinations. I need to enhance my knowledge of Europe again,” she said.
“Greece more than exceeded my expectations because, in addition to the sites, there are the people connections,” Sheldon said. “The licensed guide who studied three years in order to lead tours around Athens, or the craftsman I bought a painted stone from on the tiny island of Aegina."
She also felt she can now sell the core benefits of an island like Santorini. “Learning about the winemaking and the harvest will also benefit my clients that want to experience that,” she said.
Sheldon also enjoyed a day-long cruise to three small Saronic Sea islands — Hydra, Aegina, and Poros — as well as Santorini, which she said “gave me a feel for the more laid-back Greek experience. Because we were visiting just before the busy season, the islands weren't real busy. Knowing this will help me suggest to clients how to avoid the crowds.”
“This time around was much more in-depth,” Phillipi said. “I will definitely make Corfu a part of the group itinerary I’m planning. I want everyone to meet Vassilis (Kontos, director of a local tour company that organized the ASTA fam) and Vasiliki (Skagia, another Corfu-based tour operator)."
Celestyal Cruise President Leslie Peden joined Phillipi’s group on the pre-conference cruise, which she called, “an added plus, because we got a lot of information about their group’s policies and options. And he’s fun to cruise with!” she said.
Social media sales mavens
During the conference, and the pre- and post-expo fams, hundreds of agents were using social media to stay in touch with each other and generate excitement among their clients following them thousands of miles away.
“A lot of agents are posting while they’re here,” said Zane Kerby, ASTA president and CEO, at the same press conference. “And they are hearing, ‘Can you lead a tour next year?’ Everyone here knows that the best way to sell a destination is to visit it and have those personal contacts that can make the difference.”
“I have a client interested in Greece,” Sheldon said. “They are going to Alaska this year, but have decided Greece is their destination for next year.”
Phillipi said she generated several sales leads from her daily postings, both on her cruise and the post-conference excursions. “Even my 10-year-old nephew was following my Facebook posts,” she said. “He’s studying Greek mythology at school in Oklahoma, and his mom said he was jealous of my trip. So, I told her, ‘Let’s plan a trip so he can see these places for himself.’"
Additionally, by following other agents on social media during the week, Phillipi and Sheldon were able to take part in what the other agents were experiencing.
“Seeing photos and hearing stories about the other post-conference fams was really helpful, considering we couldn’t possibly get everywhere. The group in Santorini had an interesting experience at a hotel with no lifts and a lot of stairs. That’s important for qualifying clients — advising against a place for those with impaired mobility,” Phillipi said.
Finally, both Sheldon and Phillipi praised the opportunity to meet so many local suppliers in such a short time.
“Byron (Argiris, founder of Concept Tours in Greece) and Bob (Duglin, ASTA vice president) created an extraordinary experience for the attendees. The Expo and trade show was just about what I expected and was incredibly valuable for the opportunity to connect personally with so many suppliers,” Phillipi said.
“I made some excellent contacts in the wedding and honeymoon niche,” Sheldon said. Not only will they help her with her clients, but Sheldon said they will also help her in her role as executive director for the Destination Wedding and Honeymoon Specialists Association.
Sheldon is working with a wedding planner colleague to put together a destination wedding fam trip to Santorini and Mykonos in 2019.