Managing Client Expectations Has Never Been More Importantby Dori Saltzman /
Travel advisors wear many hats for their clients. Not only do they match their clients to the right vacation products, then plan the ideal vacation for each client. They also prepare their clients for what's coming, and part of that is managing their expectations.
"I believe that managing expectations is one of the most important roles of today's travel advisor," Christen Perry, owner of Classic Travel Connection, a member of the Affluent Traveler Collection, told Travel Market Report.
The support travel advisors provide to their clients – including helping them manage their expectations from start to finish – "demonstrates the value of the client-consultant relationship," said Diane Manson, CTC, owner of Mountain City Travel, a division of Uniglobe Enterprise. "Being proactive, explaining solution options creates 'You know what my travel consultant did for me!' conversations. This is marketing you can't put a price on."
In recent months, Travel Market Report has heard from advisors time and again that the need to manage their clients' expectations has never been more apparent.
People's expectations are out of whack, we've heard. They're more impatient and more easily ruffled than ever before.
"I think people's emotions are elevated," and they're "a little edgier than normal," explained Adam Duckworth, president and founder of Travelmation, a Travel Leaders Network affiliate. "The fuse is shorter than I've ever seen it with people in 2023."
Combine that, he said, with the fact that "things aren't always the way they used to be," and the potential for disappointment and frustration is high. "The level of expectation that folks had pre-COVID is definitely not being met in every circumstance. There's a lot of angst."
While there's not a lot advisors can do about many of these changes, preparing clients ahead of time can make dealing with them just a little bit easier.
Create an Expectation Framework
One of the best things travel advisors can do is set up a baseline of expectations, even before clients reach out to plan travel.
"Managing expectations from the very beginning is the best way for our clients to have a fantastic experience and keep them coming back to us over and over again for their future vacations," Perry said.
"I put reminders out there every so often about how travel demand is back and it has really pushed rates out of whack… I really try to set expectations all the way from social media to our first call," added Michelle Shrader, owner of Adventure Tours & Travel, an InteleTravel affiliate.
Duckworth said he and his advisors also use social media to help set expectations, whether it's messaging about how long the booking window should be or what pricing for air or cruises is looking like.
"We equip them [network of advisors] with the data and information that we're seeing from the industry at large and they push that out to their clients," he said.
Perry said she starts the process before her first discovery call.
"They receive an email letting them know how we work together to plan the best experience that is tailor made to their needs and dreams. The email covers everything from how long my turn around time is for a proposal to letting them know that I have a research and design fee."
The email also lists budget ranges for specific destinations, so clients are prepared ahead of time for the approximate cost of their trip.
Which Expectations Should Advisors Be Managing?
"There are so many opportunities throughout the booking process that we have to manage those expectations," Perry told TMR.
From what clients can expect from working with your agency to how much their vacation will cost to what problems they might encounter, there's a lot for advisors to manage.
"Vacations are a big investment, both time and money," Perry said. "Clients want to know what they can expect from you, how you are going to work with them… they want to be confident that the travel advisor who they are entrusting with their vacation memories is worthy of that trust."
Perry helps prepare clients – and reinforce her expertise – with general travel information about things like how to pack lightly, which can help them avoid checking luggage and the inherent risk of lost luggage that's higher than it's ever been.
One of the first thing advisors should be setting the stage for, particularly with clients who haven't traveled since before COVID-19, is that the world has changed and things don't necessarily operate the way they used to.
"One of the most important things I tell my clients whose travel is approaching, 'Remember, the world has changed, and more specifically the travel industry has changed,'" Perry said.
Every travel advisor TMR spoke with advises their clients to pack their patience.
"Many people who worked in the industry for years had to move on to other careers when the world shut down," Perry said. "Now we have new staff and sometimes not enough staff. Things may take a little longer and may not go exactly as planned."
Shrader said she's even blunter with her clients, "It's going to be ride," she tells her clients.
She tries to pass on what she's heard from other clients. For instance, when clients returned from a cruise with a list of "a lot of little things that stacked up," she wrapped that up into some of her messaging to clients.
Duckworth said his advisors do much the same when they know there's a problem with a supplier.
"One of the things that our advisors do is they inquire with the hotel what level of serve they are back to… Most hotels and resorts have returned to 100% servicing capacity, but there's probably 10% of hotels that haven't done that yet. We do attempt, when we're aware of it, to make the client aware so they can set their expectations."
One of the biggest expectations advisors said they're spending time managing is price – both that it's higher than clients are probably used to and that it can change at any moment.
"If I give you a quote right now, that could change in five minutes," Shrader said, adding she tells clients who haven't done any research yet "If you've traveled in the past, chances are the rates are probably going to be a lot different than what you've seen before."
Airfare, in particular, is where a lot of sticker shock is coming into play.
"I have found myself lately quoting airfare right up front," Shrader added, though she added it's not only airfare that's higher than its' been. Resorts and all-inclusives are pricing higher, as well.
"People will say, we just went to Mexico last year and we took the whole family for $4,000 and now you want $7,500."
Duckworth said he's addressing the same issue.
"We're actually setting the expectations for our clients that things have increased 15 to 20% year over year from last year, and from 2021. We're looking at probably around a 30% increase in cost of travel from start to finish and we tell our clients that on the front, so they're not sticker shocked."
Duckworth told TMR he's got his advisors spending more time preparing his clients for problems with air travel than anything else.
"90% of it is air. Obviously, we know there's been a lot of airline issues in 2022 and 2023… We tend to use the word trip interruption versus cancellation. We encourage our advisors to use those terms and to equip their clients for that."
"It's a lot of nurturing along the way, reassuring clients that things are going to be okay. We're looking at things, whether that's hotels nearby you or alternate airports to get you home… be prepared, if things don't go your way, we're going to figure out an alternative plan."
Keep It Positive
It's important when setting expectations to keep things positive. You're not trying to scare clients away from traveling.
"Sometimes it's difficult to manage client expectations without being a 'Debbie Downer' or 'Negative Nelly,'" Perry said. "But keeping that conversation positive and upbeat is important. Travel is a privilege and it's amazing."
Both Perry and Duckworth emphasized holding onto grace in the face of what might go wrong when traveling these days.
"While this can be somewhat frustrating, kindness is always key, and patience, grace, and a smile go a long way these days," Perry said.
Duckworth agreed. "In all circumstances try to extend grace to your clients and hopefully you can equip your clients to extend that to airline employees and people that they're dealing with… We want to lead with grace because we know things are frustrating and we also know that generally getting angry and aggressive doesn't get you anywhere. Neither does panic. And in circumstances where there's trip interruptions or cancellations, people tend to go from zero to a hundred in a second, in terms of panic."
Which brings us back to preparing clients for what they can expect, including the assurance that if things do go wrong, their advisor has their back.
"I always like to tell our agents, I have yet to meet a traveler who didn't get home," Duckworth said. "We are going to always get them home. It may take a little longer than they expected, but we're going to do everything we can to get them there."