No matter the jobs, people have certain expectations coming into them. For many travel advisors, early expectations might include low-cost, carefree travel, daily client inquiries and bookings, and never-ending commissions rolling in.
Sure, most new advisors understand it’s not going to be easy, especially in their first year or two. But the actual experience of the first couple of years of business often jars with that initial theoretical understanding of what’s required.
To help shortcut the learning curve for new advisors, Travel Market Report spoke to experienced travel advisors to find out what they wish they’d known when they first started out.
(This is the first in a five-part series in which travel advisors who have been in business for at least 10 years share the wisdom they’ve learned over the course of their careers.)
1. It’s harder than you think. Expect to be cash poor your first year.
“When you start in this business, the first year is very, very tough,” said David Locke, co-owner of Seize the Seas, an Avoya Travel member agency.
Alan Rosenbaum, owner of an Atlanta-based Dream Vacations franchise said much the same thing. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t realize how hard it would be. It’s harder than you think. ”
Essentially, Locke said, you’re working for free. “You work, you learn, you ‘learn on the job,’ and you build a book of business. But you don’t get paid until the people actually travel.”
Because most people tend to use an advisor to book travel in advance, you could make next to nothing in your first year of business. It often takes until the second year for money to start coming in. If you’ve done a good job with those clients, you’ll also start to see people rebook new travel with you.
“Your cash comes in and your business snowballs,” he said of getting past the first year.
For that first year, he added, new travel advisors need to understand they may need to live off of credit or dip into their savings to get by. It also helps if someone else in the family is bringing in a steady paycheck.
2. Project confidence, even if you don’t feel it.
It may be cliché, but “fake it ‘til you make it” can be a critical skill in your early days as a travel advisor. People need to feel comfortable trusting their money – and more importantly, their vacation time – to you.
“Believe in yourself and exude confidence,” said Richard Stieff, owner of a Boynton Beach Cruise Planners franchise. “Even if you don’t feel it, show it.”
He added, “The way you deliver information to the guests will set the tone on the relationship you are developing with them. With confidence, you show the guest you are a professional, not someone just dabbing their toes in the industry.”
“Never say ‘I don’t know,’” Rosenbaum added. “If you don’t know, say ‘I’ll find that out and get right back to you.’”
3. Ask questions. Learn to qualify guests and start the relationship.
It’s easy to assume that most people know what they want when they reach out to a travel advisor to book a trip. But in many cases, even those who think they know, don’t actually. Perhaps, they call because they want to take a river cruise and they’ve seen numerous Viking Cruises ads. But they’re actually high-end clients who enjoy a more luxurious experience. Without asking questions, you’d never know that and book them on Viking, just like they asked. When they end up unhappy, there’s a good chance they’re never coming back to you.
“You must build a relationship with your guests,” said Ray Teet, co-owner of a Palm City, Florida Dream Vacations franchise, who started out in the industry years ago as a cruise line phone agent where he was taught not to qualify customers. But the emphasis on closing the sale quickly never felt right and he naturally fell into advising his customers instead.
“Go beyond the initial ask of ‘how much for an inside cabin on this cruise?’ They must be willing to answer your questions about their vacation and what they are seeking to experience.”
4. Maintain meticulous records.
Part of being able to have a good relationship with your clients (and your suppliers) is to keep really good records.
“Maintain data on your clients, their travel, and what you’ve done for them,” said Ann Sadie Osten, president of Sadie’s Global Travel Ltd., a TRAVELSAVERS member agency. “Create files electronically on destinations and include feedback from your clients in the files.”
These records can help you serve both your current and future clients better. And don’t forget to back those records up on a regular basis.
5. Pay as much attention to geography and logistics as everything else.
“How much you know about geography will aid you in properly selling travel and guiding your clients,” said Justin Smith, president of The Evolved Traveler, an Ensemble Travel member agency.
Understanding how to get people from place to place – or if it’s even possible – is critical to serving your clients. Just because two cities are on the same continent doesn’t mean they make for an easy two-city getaway.
Smith cited a time a client asked to go from Iquitos, Peru to Rio de Janeiro for a weekend trip. The travel alone would have taken half the time they had. Try to learn as much as possible about the geographic areas you sell so you know what is and isn’t possible.
6. Don’t forget local marketing.
Many travel advisors work with host agencies or agency consortiums that provide national marketing, but local marketing is just as important, said John Gawne, co-owner of a Virginia Beach-based Dream Vacations franchise.
“It took me two years to realize I needed to join the local Chamber of Commerce, which really paid off,” he told TMR.
Gawne attended meetings in his own city, as well as nearby cities, and gained “numerous customers” from his efforts.
7. Learn from others.
Whether you’re working for someone else or going it alone – and especially if you’re a solopreneur – taking the time to learn from others with more experience can be immensely helpful. If you encounter a problem, chances are someone else has a solution.
“Find a good mentor and learn as much from them as possible regarding all the detailed steps before and after booking clients,” said Penny Rushing of Four Points Travel, an Avoya Travel agency.
8. Sell the experience.
Last, but not least, John R. Schmitt, Jr., president of Frankenmuth Travel, a TRAVELSAVERS member agency, said it’s critical that advisors sell their clients on the experience they’ll have. Not the price they’ll pay.
“In the early days (the 1980s), it seemed that our objective was to be best at finding the lowest prices,” Schmitt, Jr. told TMR. “This took the focus off of the needs of travelers. Travelers seek adventure, experience, and opportunities for learning. For this reason, travelers are willing to pay for what they want as long as there is proof of value. This is where the ‘Advisor’ role is key.’”