20-Year Industry Veterans Offer Tips for Travel Agentsby Cheryl Rosen /
Remember OAG? Paper tickets? Pan Am?
Those of us who write the news tend to focus on what’s new — and indeed, a new breed of young travel agents is bringing great innovations to the travel industry. But, today we thought we’d focus on the real heart of the business, the travel professionals who’ve spent 20 years in the trenches and survived market crashes, commission cuts and even 9/11.
We asked them to share some of their best tips for building and growing a travel business. Here’s what they said.
It’s all in who you know, so get out there and network
“You have to keep up with the times and you have to network like crazy to keep your business going. There is no resting on your laurels,” says Mark W. Stone, from The Cruise Captain, of Tampa, Florida. And he should know, since he has been selling travel for 48 years. Stone belongs to “every networking group out there; I used to go to six or seven meetings a week just to exchange leads with other businesses, and I still go to a couple of meetings a week.”
Karynn Metcalf Gross, of DND Escapes, agreed. Three years ago, she met Tom Varghese, of Travel Tom, at a Sandals retreat and eventually joined his team as an independent contractor. “We are a strong team. We support each other. There is strength in numbers and when you are doing it all alone, it is dangerous. What would you do if something happened to you?” she said. “Also, he taught me the importance of networking. Knowing your internal customers (BDMs, suppliers and most importantly fellow professionals) is key to my success. I know I can call a friend who knows about this area more than I do and when someone needs info on Sandals they can call me. The old adage, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,’ is still relevant today.”
If things go wrong, make them right, no matter the cost
Maryanne Scully, at Travelright/Travel Experts, recalls taking a deep breath and eating the cost of a first-class ticket home from Asia for one of her first clients, whose outbound ticket had mistakenly landed him in coach instead of business class. “It cost a fortune that I did not have since I was just starting out. However, the results were priceless. My client, who owns a boutique consulting firm, offered to pay me a yearly retainer (which I declined). More importantly, I can track 95 percent of my business either directly or indirectly to this client,” she said. “I learned early on to own my mistakes and to always, always contact my reps to thank them for their assistance, not just to contact them when things go wrong! Other than business cards and a $50/month Virtuoso website, I have never spent a penny on advertising. I am now at the point where I can turn away business if the client does not fit my business model. I could never have dreamed that would be possible.”
If you’ve got it, flaunt it
Keep your marketing current and keep your name out there, says luxury travel specialist Deborah Izenberg, at GeoLuxe Travel LLC in Bristow, Virginia. “I wrapped my car. I’ve been taking marketing courses. I updated my website. I worked with vendors and tourism offices and learned so much from several FB groups (just like Cheryl Rosen’s) to increase the exposure of my business,” she said.
Consider a storefront, or not
A surprising number of agents said that even in the internet age, opening a brick-and-mortar agency was their key to success. “After working from home for a few years, I opened my storefront and business exploded. I truly believe that my office is part of the reason for my success. It gives me a place to meet with clients and people still like to do that, believe it or not. I also think that constantly reminding people that I am a 'real,' full-time travel agent via social media and other avenues gives me the legitimacy that people are looking for in this business,” said Julie Armstrong Lanham, of Vacations to Remember in Evans, Georgia.
But, others disagreed completely. Beverly Falley at Island Dreams Travel in Lawrence, Kansas, credits going home-based with helping her business to grow. “For me, the most significant change I made was to move from the brick-and-mortar agency to a home-based, hosted agency. My brand, agency name and reputation has not changed, but the logistics of maintaining an office just no longer made sense. Now, I work from anywhere in the world and provide clients with personal service that is impossible to do during 'office hours.' Today's travelers are looking for special perks and services, and, most importantly, advice about destinations and suggestions about unique things to do. Working as an independent agent enables me to interact in a much more personal way, which creates repeat clients and referrals.”
Learn, learn, learn
Betsy Bouche at Largay Travel Inc. in Waterbury, Connecticut, recommends that newer agents take advantage of training from their host agencies and consortium. And, “take advantage of all the training they can. I'm still grateful for learning to handwrite tickets back in the day in travel school, so that I know what every single thing on an airline ticket means and I understand fares.”
Choose your clients rather than the other way around
Have confidence in the fact that you are an expert and choose clients who respect and are willing to pay for that expertise, suggests Laure Poffenberger at TravelLuxuryVacations in Round Rock, Texas. “Luxury clients want hand-holding and help; they understand the value of experience and are not trying to save every dime. And most luxury destination couples are the same. I do charge a fee before doing any work for a wedding couple and let them know I work only with X amount of couples per year. Learning to say no to a potential client that may not be a good fit keeps me available for those that will be.”
Take advantage of social media
“Embracing social media and blogging helped me," said Suzette Mack at Brownell Travel. "I didn’t get direct referrals from them, but it got my name popping up in search engines. I made sure to write in my own voice as much as possible, so they would get to know me. I didn’t just post deals. And then clients said they chose me after reading my posts. The content proved that I was a family specialist, and they could tell that I would be a good fit for them, that I would understand their family.”
You gotta love it
Passion is key, said Michael Schellhase of Travel Haus in St Louis. “Breathe it, live it, share it! After 34 years, the passion is still burning. People enjoy having someone assist them who is passionate about their work. Do you tip a waiter more when they're passionate? Of course, so having passion as you educate your consumer wins them every time! You have a choice and so does your client!”