Research shows that the jump from $1 million to $2 million in annual sales is among the toughest hurdles for travel advisors. But for those with the fortitude and drive to go for it, the next million is within your grasp, the experts say — and they have the data to back that up.
“Typically, at around the $500,000 mark, $1 million feels miles away, and it’s also hard to get from $2 million to $4 million,” said Kerry Dyer, who heads the mentoring program at Brownell Travel. But $1.2 million in annual sales is a sort of sticking point for professional travel advisors, Brownell’s research shows.
Many understand that the first thing they need to do is hire an assistant — and yet many hesitate.
“At that point they are thinking, ‘OK I’m cooking, I’m seeing some money and thinking wow, do I really need to take $40,000 of that and invest in administrative support? Is the ROI going to be there? Do I trust someone to do it as well as I do, and is it efficient to spend the time to train them?’” Dyer said. “But all of our statistics show it really is; in 18 months, you are going to double your investment.”
Teresa Hildebrand, who manages 21 travel agents who handle AAA Travel for the state of Georgia, also has found that, “when they hit that million-dollar mark, they are very proud; they feel like they’ve made it. They take a little hiatus. You need to give them some kudos and some awards and a little break (or do that for yourself). And then they kind of reengage, they want to bask in the limelight again.”
But believing that you need help to make it to the next level, in 2018, Hildebrand gave six agents a virtual assistant to share.
The case for hiring an assistant
Hildebrand started a soft rollout in 0ctober 2017 to be ready for Wave Season 2018, with a group of agents selling between $1 million and $1.4 million. “They felt, immediately, that a good percentage of their workload was relieved and they had more time to talk to the clients.”
By the end of the year, all but one sold over $2 million — and “what’s really exciting is, looking at Q1 for this year, one is at $785,000, three are over $600,000, and one is over $550,000. And we found that, last year, these agents didn’t really have a slow season; they had more time to do prospecting and events, which helped with the low spots of the year, and that really made a difference.”
Hildebrand also offered the agents training in how to introduce the assistant to their clients, and new booking packages for their customers highlighting “Me and My Assistant.”
The assistant works home-based, which Hildebrand believes makes her more efficient “because she doesn’t get distracted.” When clients leave the office, she puts together a booking packet “that says thank you, and offers destination and insurance information, and tips and tricks in a nice 8.5” x 11” logo’ed folder sent to their home.”
If you’re thinking of hiring your own assistant, though, do it right, Hildebrand says. As you go through your day, make a list of the things you are not good at or don’t like to do. Then write a job description. And “when you interview, make sure they don’t want to be you — make sure they are not going to take everything you teach them and leave and start their own agency” or even worse, steal from you. Consider doing a background check, and check with your attorney about state laws.
To simplify things, Brownell Travel, in 2017, began a Hosting Assistance program where travel advisors can hire assistants for $35 an hour, “so for $70, you get two hours of your day back.” The average advisor uses an assistant three to six hours a month, enough to be significant for them, Dyer said.
Brownell, too, has found assistants make a big difference. “I think absolutely the No. 1 thing is hiring an assistant,” Dyer said. “There are only so many hours in the day and you cannot produce more time. Delegating the admin stuff frees you up for more education, more networking, more getting out on the road and posting about your trip to Europe.”
More tips for all that free time
With the extra time, take a second look at your marketing and customer base, the professionals suggest.
Many travel advisors reach the million mark after about four years in business — and Brownell finds many have not updated their website in all that time. “Yes, you do need that website,” Dyer says. “And we certainly believe in editorial in your town newsletter, and press releases and maybe some advertorial in the local paper.
“But the best marketing is referrals, so be sure to connect with clients when they get home — and ask for that referral. You don’t have to be pushy, but you do have to promote yourself. Say you are so glad they had a great experience, and when they share it with their friends, you hope they will include you.”
And then begin to cull your customer list, focusing on the luxury trips that really show off your value as an expert.
Think groups, said Royal Caribbean Senior Vice President Vicki Freed. In fact, consider a “come along” cruise and sail with your clients, said Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement & performance for Dream Vacations, CruiseOne, and Cruises Inc.
Anna Sullivan Bright, who heads the Luxury Vacation Division of Travelink American Express, said sharing an assistant with two other travel advisors helps her focus on the details that keep her luxury clients coming back.
“I probably made about $800,000 my first year; then I kind of got stuck, and that’s when we decided to hire an assistant,” she said. “Luxury clients expect to be attended to; I check my email when I’m traveling and on weekends. I’ve set alarms in the middle of the night to get a client dinner reservations somewhere. I’ll do whatever it takes to do something special for my clients.”
If it all seems too much and you are happy at the $1 million mark, that’s okay, too, Dyer said. “I guess my main takeaway is that you are an entrepreneur launching a business and it can be what you want it to be. We have sales awards at the $1 million mark, and yes, we do find that, for some, the goal is just to have the time to take a shower every day. They need some breathing room. But then when they feel in a good place, when busy season is over and maybe they’ve traveled to Europe and posted some pictures on Facebook, around summer, they start to think about growing.”