Travel is a people business. Even with the many advanced technologies available to assist with travel planning and booking, it is still all about travel professionals helping their clients to explore new lands and cultures - human beings interacting with other human beings so they can participate in enriching experiences.
And so, it is no wonder that having strong relationships is the linchpin for travel advisors to operate a successful travel business.
Start with solid supplier connections
It all starts with suppliers. First, determining those that best fit a travel advisor’s business focus. And then working to build personal connections with those brands that are mutually beneficial.
“When it comes to my suppliers, the relationships I have with them are the sharpest tool that I have in my belt,” says Carrie Kersten, owner of Carri Kersten Travel Design, LLC. “Being able to contact someone when there is an issue or when I need a special request, or to have another set of eyes look at something and give me suggestions, is critical, especially in a day when most of us work outside of traditional office settings.”
Vicki Fricke, CEO of Vic’s Vacations, agrees: “I think connections and relationships are the backbone to any agent’s success with the suppliers they choose to work with. Period. To a supplier, an agent can be two things: a number or a partner. The agent that books the trip and moves on with their day is a transaction. The agent who focuses on a relationship with those in that company, of course, are booking, but they’re taking it three steps farther. They’re creating a genuine relationship, they’re fostering that connection, and they’re utilizing those connections to earn the invitation for further knowledge and opportunities.”
Fricke adds: “People buy from people, not from companies. I think that’s one thing that is extremely important in any sales position to truly understand. As a travel agent, my clients choose to book their trip with me, Vic. As an advisor, I choose to source my clients' vacations from the companies where I’ve created personal connections. Why? A mutually beneficial support network (between agent and supplier) goes much farther when my clients or I need support when things go wrong.
“The relationships derived through personal connections are how effectively creative solutions are made. I recently had a resolution granted by my BDM (business development manager) that seamlessly fixed an issue I was paralyzed with. Without her support and solution, I can’t imagine the resolution being the one that both the client and I ended up with. My relationship with this person was the reason for her prompt and fantastic handling of the problem. I’ve built that relationship over the years with her, on sincerity, friendship, and support of each other. That relationship was her drive to do everything she could to support me.”
Reap the rewards of loyalty
Showing loyalty to certain travel brands also leads to better benefits, and helps travel advisors find the best fit for their clients.
“Brand loyalty leads to trust,” says Fricke. “The more you book with a brand, the more they know you’re not only there, but you’re an ally to them in this industry, and the more they’ll be an ally back. Whether it’s the invitation to a FAM (familiarization trip), an invitation to an event in your area to connect with your BDM, or an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to a marketing idea you’d like their support on.
“I was recently invited on a trip to Greece with a supplier - a trip that goes far beyond your typical FAM. This FAM will absolutely enhance my ability to sell this country with firsthand knowledge and experience. To be invited on this FAM was based on sales, marketing strategies, and you guessed it: relationships. The brand knew I was loyal to them for this type of reservation, I had worked well with them in other FAM experiences, and that our goals were aligned: to continue growing in the Europe space together.”
Kersten also notes that “with loyalty comes higher commission levels, but also better service. I recently had a supplier refund $15,000 in airline tickets to a client who was denied boarding at the airport due to a problem with their personal documents. These were nonrefundable tickets, but with one phone call, a refund was processed immediately because of my relationship with this supplier. They made me look like a rock star! These things don't happen for you if you don't show loyalty and give respect to the suppliers who are our partners."
As for how to forge strong bonds with travel suppliers, Fricke offers: “Don’t be afraid to create a relationship with a brand. It’s easy to fall through the cracks (especially if you live in an area that is different from your host agency or main office), so make yourself known. Introduce yourself to your BDM. Let them know your interest in a partnership. Communicate with them, not just reaching out when you need something. Realize that caring for others and creating genuine connections is the key to a lasting relationship. And don’t forget, the travel space is one based on people. Be good and kind to people, and they will do the same in return.”
Get help with package upgrades
Those well-established relationships can also assist travel advisors in selling package upgrades, matching what is best for each client, from insurance options to payment options to pre-booking excursions, rounding out the entire travel experience.
Casey Kiler, owner of Blue Spring Travel, explains how: “Getting to know your clients and what they really want out of their vacation will take their vacation and experience with you from, ‘The vacation was good’ to ‘Our vacation was amazing, everything was taken care of before we arrived, and we didn’t have to worry about anything.’
“For example: Did your clients upgrade their room category to a concierge or butler room? These are the clients I would also want to make sure they have private transfers, pre-booking their excursions with our preferred suppliers in order to save them time at the resort, and making sure they fully understand their insurance options so they can choose the correct one for them. Some suppliers even offer special perks for your clients, like upgraded transfers, upgraded rooms, special in-room amenities, free bali bed for the day, etc. These extra amenities can make your clients feel like VIPs and make you look like a star in your clients’ eyes!”
The bottom line is, the more you know and the better connected you are, the more you can sell. Tour operators, DMCs (destination management companies), hoteliers, and cruise lines all offer extensive training programs that are conveniently delivered online, in-person, and/or through FAM trips. Successful travel advisors never stop learning, devoting time to building their travel knowledge base, and experiencing destinations and travel products firsthand - so they can pass the best recommendations with trusted travel suppliers onto their clients.
Build the all-important client bond
Spending time building relationships with clients is just as important as crafting relationships with suppliers - and those two tasks work synergistically.
“Personal connections with my clients are the most important element in being a successful travel advisor,” says Kiler. “It helps me tailor their experiences to their preferences, build trust, anticipate needs, offer personalized recommendations, and create memorable moments. These personal elements increase the likelihood of repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.
“My favorite thing is being able to contact a past client and say, ‘Hey, there’s a new resort opening up that has your name ALL over it!’ and them trusting me enough to say, ‘Fantastic! Tell me more!’”
One of Kersten’s strategies to bolster bonds with clients is: “I explain to potential clients that I won't send them to a destination or resort that I wouldn't feel comfortable booking for my own family. I am comfortable turning down business if it doesn't align with my idea of quality. Likewise, I don't offer price matches out of respect for my suppliers. When I explain to my clients that I will only book them with a vetted supplier for their own security, they feel valued. When your clients know that your priority is their satisfaction and the protection of their travel investment, it develops loyalty. Repeat business and referrals are my ultimate goal.”
Ideas to enhance client relationships
What else can travel advisors do to enhance relationships with their clientele?
“Don't overlook the details,” advises Kersten. “Picking up on the small things in a conversation with your client shows that you are focused solely on them. For example, a client had mentioned months ago that her husband was having some knee issues. When she recently reached out for an upcoming trip, I asked her which aisle to seat him in to make it easier on that knee that was bothering him. She emailed me later that day thanking me for thinking of that and remembering. It's the little things that make the biggest impact on people.”
Fricke suggests: “BE YOU. Sharing pretty photos and pre-generated captions on social media creates no differentiation between you and a booking engine. It’s not personal. It doesn’t lead to the key elements to sales: know, like, and trust. To trust an advisor with five, ten, twenty thousand dollars of their hard-earned money, they need to know you, like you, and trust you. So how do you build better relationships with clients? Invite them in. Share who you are with them. Let them know why you are the correct choice for them when it comes time to invest in travel. Show them your personal experience traveling. Share client stories. Let them in to know the agent on the other end of the pretty photo.
“Just remember, while it’s a business transaction, it’s a transaction they have choices to make with many other agents or booking engines. Set yourself apart so they feel a genuine connection with you. When they do, they’ll be inspired to book with you every time.”
And Kiler’s winning strategy is: “Pick up the phone and talk to your clients. This may be an unpopular opinion with other advisors, but I live in the Midwest, and people still like to talk. So for me, I’ve found that if I don’t establish a human connection, they are more likely to use your knowledge and move on. Even if you are charging a consultation or research fee (good for you, by the way), the end goal is that we want the booking, we want the customer for life. If we are not talking to them, getting to know them, and finding out their wants and needs, then we are no different than any other agent just answering emails and booking trips. You MUST set yourself apart and show the clients that you truly care about them.”
When it comes to developing strong relationships in travel - whether it is with clients, suppliers, or colleagues - Kilner offers this piece of parting advice: “Connections are GOLDEN in this industry and knowledge is POWER! Connections you will make along the way can make or break you … 26 years in this industry, and I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of what all I could do with the help of my connections and their ability to embrace my ideas to grow with them and create a successful future for all of us.”
FROM THE SPONSOR:
ALG Vacations® stands as the premier tour operator in North America, and we are wholeheartedly dedicated to embracing kindness at its core. Our commitment is exemplified through a range of initiatives, including our Give-Back program, which empowers travel advisors to contribute through donations and volunteer work in global tourism destinations such as Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Additionally, we proudly partner with hotels that share our vision of sustainable vacationing. ALGV takes immense pride in being a steadfast pillar in support of our parent company Hyatt's mission to foster a World of Care.
At ALGV, we are guided by a simple yet profound belief: that kindness serves as the key to enriching lives. This belief is ingrained in the very essence of our organization, forming the bedrock of our three fundamental pillars of action: Kindness to Ourselves, Kindness to Others, and Kindness in Travel. We're dedicated to turning vacation dreams into lifelong memories, making every journey a testament to our commitment to spreading kindness and joy.
We invite you to discover more about us and embark on a journey unlike any other at algvacations.com.