Group travel is one of the most lucrative lines of business for travel agents, but they also present logistical challenges amplified by the number of clients and the type of trip booked. As a result, travel agents need to decide whether they or a member of their team should accompany the group.
Recently, a group of agents discussed the pros and cons of accompanying their groups on trips in the Group Travel Best Practices for Travel Agents Facebook group. Some agents discussed how accompanying a group is critical to ensuring everything goes perfectly. Still others said that with the volume of business they book, they cannot justify being away from their business that often.
The thread was started by Amoira Latrice, owner at Cruise Planners - We Travel In Groups, in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the time she posted, she was in Jamaica at the Moon Palace, with a 132-person destination wedding.
She wrote: “If you do not travel with your big groups, you are doing them injustice!!! The resort will not take care of your guests the way they will if you were there. My guests are being so spoiled right now! All I keep hearing is, ‘I’ve never been on a group trip so organized and well thought out.’ Moral of the story … start traveling with your large capacity groups.”
Being on-site enhances client service
The main reason most agents cited for wanting to be on-site with their groups was the ability to take care of their clients better and solve any problems that arise more quickly and easily.
Catina Wilson, owner of YOUR Travel Concierge, in Atlanta, Georgia, has a 150-person group going on a cruise later this year, with a lot of new-to-cruise members. She has ten groups booked this summer and is already booking for 2019 and 2020.
“I want them to be comfortable and have someone to go to in the event of questions or issues,” Wilson said. “For many, this is also their first time leaving the country. I want everything to run smoothly and for my clients to feel comfortable.”
“I travel with all of my groups. It just makes my life and their trip better," said Tonya Carter, owner of Awesome Horizons Travel, in Union City, Georgia. "I arrive the day before them, meet the staff, go over room assignments, etc. If the resort allows, I set up a table in the lobby so that I can greet them as they arrive. There is nothing worse than being home, trying to solve a problem in the Caribbean.”
Carter, who travels with groups if there are at least 30 guests, feels new-to-cruise group guests must be escorted, because she finds they have so many questions. Even experienced cruisers heading to new destinations could need handholding. “I sent a group of experienced cruisers to Alaska last month, and they called me about 15 times from the ship,” Carter said.
“If I have a competent group leader, and it's less than 30 people, with everyone being on the same flight, I stay home and keep close contact with the leader,” she said.
In an interview with Travel Market Report, Jamie Viggiano, owner of Away With Me Travel, in North Babylon, New York, said being present helps her clients feel appreciated, “that their vacation matters as much to us as it does to them. If an agent travels with them or not, they know that they will be taken care of by my agency.”
“If a flight is delayed, if baggage is lost, if someone is ill, a room reservation is missing, they need a dinner recommendation or tickets to a show, my agent is there to help in any way. It is peace of mind, especially for my newer travelers.”
How to decide?
Viggiano books an average of 10 groups a year, mostly cruise and a few land tours, and makes her decision based on the destination and type of group.
“I think it depends on the actual group, if an agent is needed to accompany them,” she said. “If a group is high-end, I like to send a qualified agent so, if anything goes wrong, they are represented immediately and it adds to my travel concierge service. My clients love the VIP status of traveling with an expert.”
“If I have a group traveling on a 4-night cruise to the Bahamas, I will not send an agent, unless requested and compensated. If it is a 14-day to Scandinavia or the South Pacific, then yes.”
Other agents said that for more elderly groups, they often travel with their clients because of the special needs those clients may have, and to see how their vendors handle older guests. Viggiano said she also sends agents for all of her destination weddings and high-end trips, and if she is using a new tour operator.
“You must travel with groups of size,” said Susie Conger, owner of a CruiseOne franchise in Eagle, Idaho, because there are “too many hiccups to control by text and email. Family units not so much, otherwise yes, sometimes even as small as 25 rooms need a host. Do not forget to adequately charge for this level of service or you could become resentful.”
Tammie Palazzo, owner at Palazzo's Vacations, in Pleasant Hill, Iowa, does not travel with her all-inclusive groups, a big part of her business. “I do many each year and have it very organized. I use properties that typically I've been to and met the management. I have a good relationship with the BDM of the properties … so I don't feel a need to go. I've not encountered any problems doing it this way as of yet. I feel extremely comfortable with my system and get plenty of referrals doing it this way,” she said.
Should you be compensated?
Indeed, agents engaged in a healthy debate on the thread about whether it is appropriate to charge for accompanying a group. One agent said that she has found it best to insist on some kind of per diem and expenses for her to accompany her groups. “Working for free is not my business model,” wrote the agent, who said she books 20-30 groups a year.
Kristi Zalesky, owner of Explore Your World Vacations, in Denver, Colorado, also only travels with groups who pay her travel expenses and a per diem. “I am a valuable asset and need to be seen as such,” she said.
Agent Latrice considers herself fortunate not to have to rely on payments like that, because she and her husband are retired U.S. Army officers.
Finally, traveling with your groups is a chance to build your business, both with clients traveling in the group and with the vendors hosting your customers. Latrice talked about how attending a destination wedding you book introduces you to the wedding guests, and helps you form relationships for future new clients.
Debbie Santiago, owner of You Deserve Travel, in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, said she looks forward to joining a 50-person group she has booked later this year. “It'll be nice to put faces to the names that were on paper all year and it'll give me access to 20-plus new clients that I can offer my services to in the near future. Also, I want to build a relationship with the resort manager, animation teams, etc. Relationships are important,” she said.
Joann Johnson-Scott owner of Scott & Scott Travel, LLC, in Bradenton, Florida, said that once she didn’t accompany a cruise group. “This cost me future business,” she said. Now, “unless it is family and everyone knows each other beforehand, I appoint someone as acting representative for my agency,” she said, and they are compensated for their time.