COVID-19 is the pinnacle of uncertain times. And while much is still unknown, the obstacle can lead to creativity and innovation. Several travel agencies that have successfully pivoted their business strategy shared their advice during ASTA Global on Tuesday.
While the pandemic is different from anything the industry has seen, Claire Bidlingmaier, senior director of The Affluent Traveler Collection, noted that advisors are used to facing sudden challenges. “Every time there’s a hurricane, an economic downturn, an airline strike, we have the experience and background to pivot.”
What remains steady through it all is “to know my clients, and know them intimately, and you can work through any situation,” Bidlingmaier said.
Matt Wahlgren, of Matt Travel, also knows his clients on a personal level – and considers them friends. He’s been reaching out with phone calls, not to sell, but to see how they are holding up through it all and sending inspirational messages. He wants his clients to keep dreaming about travel.
Helen Prochilo, owner of Promal Vacations, has seen success in joining supplier virtual webinars/consumer nights that her agency can invite clients to. It’s a fun way to keep clients engaged and suppliers are generally more than happy to include them.
Pivoting in response to the pandemic
For The Travel Box International, President Mo Noubani said the agency had to pivot to selling domestic packages that still had an experiential element “to stay true to our aesthetic.”
“It’s an ongoing process, some things work and some things don’t, but I think everyone would agree no one can be stagnant in today’s market,” Noubani said.
His agency also added a live chat feature to the website, which helped to generate some new leads and open a dialogue with new customers.
Wahlgren has a long-term strategy, and has been reaching out to other local, small businesses that he feels compliment his own and ask if they want to collaborate somehow. “Maybe a couple of years down the road, we do a group culinary trip together and maybe that will bear fruit down the line.”
Prochilo said her agency updated their terms and conditions with disclosures and also included ASTA’s COVID disclaimer, to let them know they are taking the risk.
“I’m using it for everybody – it is the best way to protect yourself,” she said, adding she also updated cancellation terms to make sure clients accept any penalties from suppliers.
“The crazy part is what we’re saying today might be completely be different next week,” Noubani said. “Stay fluid and versatile and flexible, because there’s really no right or wrong.”
Don’t assume clients don’t want to travel
Bidlingmaier stressed the importance of not assuming clients don’t want to travel, and to go into any interaction with the mindset that they potentially can.
She said since people are working from home, “some of our clients feel they can just pick up and work from somewhere else. It gets them out of there funk, just to get out of their environment. I talk to advisors as well who have requests to relocate,” adding that Bermuda and Barbados have programs allowing extended stays to work remotely, as well as Hawaii but it remains very strict.
“As professionals, it just requires a lot of research so when you make a recordation to someone you can fulfill it.”
Helen Prochilo, owner of Promal Vacations, recommended checking your own backyard for trips to sell or pitch. Based on Long Island, Prochilo said the Hamptons have proved to be very popular, and you can book a one- or two-night stay for someone who wants to get away but still be local.
“I’ve been encouraging clients to stay focused on U.S., that way if something happens you can always drive home,” Wahlgren said. “I’m also talking more about home rentals, cabin in the woods, or maybe a place that’s near a quiet beach. Something more scenic so they can decompress away from home.”
Noubani reassured other agents who expressed worry about recommending travel to their clients that ultimately they’re the ones that are right.
“If they’re ready, I don’t think there is any shame in doing your job as long as you communicate and have those conversations with them to make sure you’re covering yourself legally and professionally.”
Bidlingmaier agreed, adding that every client know themselves best, “I’m not going to presume to tell somebody my opinion on what they should or shouldn’t do, just be there for them either way.”