As the travel industry struggles to rebound from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading executives from across the travel sector discussed the ways in which the industry could do better to help individual advisors and agencies during the most recent TMR MasterAdvisor session.
Collaboration over competition
Before the pandemic, many advisors viewed each other as competitors, but now much of the travel industry has come together to present a united front.
“It is hard being leaders, and it’s hard being front-line advisors right now, and yes, many of us are competitors, but we are trying to continually raise the professionalism of the industry as a whole,” said Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president and owner of Valerie Wilson Travel, who moderated last week’s panel.
The industry is working to foster a sense of unity during this time, and while it may sound cliché, through all the change and uncertainty, advisors are all in this together.
“From our perspective, it’s all about delivering a remarkable experience. Our agents do that for their customers, and we want to do that for our agents,” said Drew Daly, senior vice president, and general manager, Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. “We can do that by providing empathy, providing inspiration, and just reminding them that they have the support of a bigger company.
“It’s about providing a solid foundation so they can continue to deliver a remarkable experience to their customers.”
It’s common knowledge that much of a travel advisor’s job is to stay educated and informed, especially with so many changes happening with destinations and policies, but what’s just as important now is educating your clients.
“It’s all about advocating and educating, as well as being there to be the compassionate leader for everyone we are working with,” said Nicole Mazza, executive VP of marketing for TRAVELSAVERS.
It’s not just about educating the supplier, but also educating the consumer of the value [travel advisors offer]. And the travel professional needs to value themselves and demonstrate that value [while] being able to communicate it in a very transparent way.”
It is important for the industry that travelers understand everything advisors can bring to the table, and to ensure agency owners are getting the tools and the resources that they need in order to have their businesses thrive.
“Two things we really think are important to the industry are the growth and evolution of the professional advisor, and creating consumer preference,” said Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso.
“I believe the number one competitor to advisors, is people that just don’t realize how good advisors really are.”
Updating business models
As much of the world continues to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the travel industry has undergone quite a few changes to adapt to the new travel landscape, forcing advisors and travel agencies to make changes to their business models just to survive.
“This [issue] is not unique to travel, this is the same issue across all advisory businesses,” said Upchurch.
One of the biggest topics among industry leaders is deciding whether or not to institute charging fees. “I think advisors should certainly be charging a professional fee for their services,” said Mazza.
“We encourage it, and we give our agencies the resources and tools. We understand that businesses are built very differently, so different models have different fee structures, so we look to that to grow their business, and we work with them to find the best solution for them.”
“There’s a value that you are providing to your consumers that goes well beyond just selling the one or two products that you sell to them. There’s a lot of value that you are adding above and beyond that and that’s what you should be highlighting to your consumer.”
Upchurch says the key is how advisors choose to communicate that to their clients. He said advisors need to have the willingness to say ‘let me explain how I make a living’.
“Advisors need to be able to communicate their value more efficiently. They need to be able to deconstruct all the value proposition, what they do before, during and after a trip, and be able to market it better.”
It’s important that advisors not second guess their own value, just like lawyers and accountants and other occupations that charge service fees.
“I think agents have learned that they need to pivot their business model, and create in their business plan a way to add more fees for their value proposition,” said Daly. “Giving people access to exclusive group rates, prices and promotions, and your expertise for a nominal fee…It’s not a shipping and handling fee or a service fee, it gives you access to a lot more than that.”
For many advisors, now may be a great time to completely revisit their marketing strategies, but no matter how your business strategy shifts, the role of the advisor and their obligation to their clients have not changed.
“I think technology is going to be critically important along with communication, but it really is going to be about how we continue to push the advisor out front,” said Alex Sharpe, President and CEO of Signature Travel Network.
“It’s about creating value for our customers, [and] I think that’s going to be even more important. Brick-and-mortar [agencies] are going to change after this, but we’re going to have to think differently if we’re going to attract the right kind of people to this industry.”
Picking the right partners
Choosing a preferred supplier partner has many benefits, but it is important to choose the right ones, and to know that when the time comes, they will be there when you need them.
“From top to bottom, [preferred partners] have to understand the value of a travel advisor,” said Sharpe. “What makes a partner is one that will stand with you and have your back through good and bad.”
For Upchurch, a good preferred partner is one that stays on top of consumer trends.
“The ability to communicate better, having a dedicated person to speak with, all the things that make it easier for an advisor to look like a Superstar… a client should be able to feel the difference when someone is a preferred partner.”
When it comes to the amount of preferred partners, Upchurch believes in quality over quantity, as long as they can continue to deliver on client’s expectations.
“It really has to do with the ability of the partner to truly satisfy what our customers are looking for. I think that’s what’s challenging, there’s obviously good business logic in dealing with fewer preferred partners, as long as those partners are absolutely able to maintain the quality and innovation in all the products that are needed.”
Restoring trust and confidence in travel
One of the biggest factors the industry can focus on short-term, is to do everything in their power to restore consumer trust and confidence in travel again.
A big part of this is implementing new policies and keeping track of the myriad of policies already put in place. From health and safety standards, to change and cancellation policies, suppliers should keep the lines of communication open for advisors, especially with regard to details that will impact travelers’ overall experience.
“In this time of uncertainty right now we know what we can’t control, but what we can control is future industry policies,” said Wilson-Buttigieg
“I think these are the topics we have to have thoughtful conversations on, what are the new policies? What are the new rules? We want to be that professional advisor, but in many ways we are caught in the middle.”
Another aspect of restoring confidence in travel is consistency regarding supplier policies. It doesn’t matter how many detailed policy conversations advisors share with their clients, if there is a whole new set of policies and rule in place when they get to the destination.
“An agency should never be caught off guard. An advisor should certainly have the most up-to-date information that there is.