If you’re thinking about adding independent contractors to your team, travel agency owner Valerie Gossett has a few words of advice for you: Don’t do it unless you’re prepared to devote plenty of time and energy to supporting them.
Gossett, owner of Premier Resources Travel in Ellijay, GA, launched her agency in 2007, and four years later brought on her first ICs. Today Premier Resources Travel has 40 independent contractors and just three part-time employees.
Gossett is a hands-on owner/manager with an extensive background in sales management, training and education. (At one time she was VP of sales for an executive recruitment firm where 500 people reported to her.) It’s a background that prepared her well for the role of supporting her independent advisors.
Today her ICs produce 70% of her agency’s sales and Gossett the other 30%, for a combined total in 2019 of $12 million.
Bringing on ICs isn’t for everybody, Gossett told Travel Market Report. For one thing, it creates more work, not less – or it should, if done right.
“A lot of agents think this is the next step – it isn’t. Don’t do it just because an agent says they want to work with you. It should be part of your business plan, not an afterthought.”
Here is Gossett’s formula for supporting a winning team of independent advisors.
1. Be available
The single most important thing you can do for your independent contractors is “make sure you have time for each IC on your team,” said Gossett, who devotes about 60% of her workday to her ICs.
“My phone is always near me until I go to bed at night. You want them to get information from you first if it’s critical, rather than just trying to figure it out. I try to make it so people feel comfortable coming to me.”
2. Provide frequent trainings
To host ICs successfully, you need to enjoy training and education, Gossett said. “You should be more informed than your agents and very well-rounded.”
Gossett offers monthly trainings with BDMs of her agency’s preferred vendors. She also does her own one-on-one trainings on an as-needed basis, in addition to organizing fam trips exclusively for her agents.
Last year, she created an advisory board comprised of herself and four of her “shining star” advisors, each of whom is a specialist in an area where Gossett’s own knowledge is lacking. Advisory board members each conduct quarterly training in their area of expertise. (The advisory board also acts at Gossett’s backup, giving her ICs someone to turn to should she be unavailable.)
3. Know your ICs, keep them close, listen
It’s really important to “keep the pulse of what’s going on” with your independents, Gossett said. “Whether you have five or 100 ICs, you’ve got to stay involved. Don’t let your ICs get too far away from you.”
Keeping the pulse doesn’t just mean tracking sales numbers. Gossett also watches for signs of disengagement, for instance if an individual stops participating in marketing campaigns or sending out newsletters. Similarly, “if someone hasn’t responded on our private Facebook page and hasn’t reached out to me, I pull them back in.”
It’s also important to be responsive to your ICs’ needs. For instance, last year Premier Resources Travel added a second CRM system after several of her ICs told her that a different CRM would provide better tools than their existing CRM.
4. Be a leader & a coach
Gossett sees her role as part business coach and mentor. She encourages her ICs to meet with her at least once a year to discuss their yearly goals and develop an action plan.
Her coaching can take a personal turn too, whether that’s providing moral support for an advisor going through a tough time or warning an IC who voices ambitious sales goals about the likely impact on their personal life of pursuing such goals.
During the doldrums of Covid, Gossett hosted spontaneous Zoom calls to bolster the spirits of her independents. Conversely, when sales are up and everyone is putting in long days, Gossett will remind her ICs to take time for themselves and their families and to make time for training.
“When you have a team, it’s no longer about you; it’s about everybody else. You’ve got to have that presence of a leader.”
5. Devote extra attention to new ICs
When an independent advisor first affiliates with Premier Resources Travel, Gossett meets with them weekly for their first month, regardless of whether they are experienced advisors or new to retail travel. “I need to find out where they really are, what their goals are, so I know what kind of plan and trainings to put together.”
After the first month, the one-on-one meetings taper to twice monthly and then to an as-needed basis.
Gossett also watches for signals that an IC, especially a new affiliate, may need help. For example, recently she noted that an advisor who is relatively new to the team had booked her first cruise. But the advisor had overlooked a group rate available through the agency’s consortia that would have saved the client $300.
Spotting a training opportunity, she called the advisor and suggested they go on Zoom together so Gossett walk her through how to get the group rate in the booking engine. “I really like my newer agents, when they haven’t booked a vendor yet, to come to me. I let them know tips and tricks.”
6. Cultivate teamwork & engagement
Nurturing relationships among ICs is important too. Most years Gossett hosts a two- to three-night retreat where vendors provide in-person training. But the retreats aren’t just about training. “It also builds team camaraderie, so everyone can get to know each other, pull from each other’s expertise, and build respect.”
The fam trips she organizes for her agents serve the same purpose. “We’re trying to build something like a little family. I want a long-term relationship.”
An in-house referral program encourages Gossett’s ICs to turn to one another for help. Under the program, if an advisor’s client requests a trip outside her area of expertise, she can give that particular booking to a colleague, earning a referral fee while retaining rights to the client for future bookings.
Recognition is another way to keep independents involved. Every month Gossett posts sales numbers of her top three sellers, along with names of other advisors who made sales that month. Periodically, she orchestrates a sales challenge, honoring the top seller with a prize.
7. Stay in the game
If you’re building a business that depends on ICs, it’s important that you continue to sell travel yourself, so you “really know what’s going on,” Gossett advised. “I still sell and book. I don’t just manage. I feel that’s better because I know how to use the booking engines. I know the challenges agents can have with clients.
“You have to think of yourself not as a manager. You’re a team lead. You’re part of the team. I think of every single agent as a partner.”