“To me, the most important skill is asking the right questions to get your clients talking, get them dreaming, and gain insight not only into their ideal vacation, but into the relationship you can build in the future,” said Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion Travel Group at Travel MarketPlace in Toronto earlier this month.
The idea of actively listening to clients reverberated across the panel, which also included Nicole Mazza, CMO of Travelsavers; Richard Vanderlubbe, president and co-founder of tripcentral.ca; and Zeina Gedeon, CEO of Travel Professionals International.
Mazza added it is also important to show up without preconceived notions of a client’s dream vacation, and really hone in on what they say. “The best advisors come in with an empty slate and just listen to their clients and what they have to say. Then you can match your client with the right product.”
Other advice that the panelists gave the more than 400 travel agents sitting in the audience, was the importance of valuing their own work.
“We are professionals, and many advisors do huge analysis and research and give it to the customer. In my opinion, you should charge a fee to do that. If you go to a lawyer, they would do that. Why wouldn’t we put value to our time?”
“We, as advisors, have to start looking at different avenues that will pay better for us, so you can continue to at least be profitable,” she continued.
In this new era, “our challenge, as agents, is how do we work with customers who also enjoy the shopping experience, but still retain them as customers,” said Vanderlubbe.
Travel advisors need PR, too
Public relations can give your brand public awareness and positive name recognition, and it is accessible for every business, big or small, said Lynn Elmhirst, a travel, media and content expert. It is a marketing tool at your disposal, giving you a permanent digital footprint, and what’s more, you don’t need a big PR firm to help your business.
By reaching out to any third-party publication, whether it be a local newspaper or TV station, you have the opportunity to get your story in the press. This will lend your business credibility, Elmhirst said. If a prospective client wants to know if you’re reputable and Googles you, these clips will come up, and that increases the likelihood someone will work with you. “It’s one of the most overlooked things that agents and agencies can do for their business.”
To get good PR, offer to be an expert to comment on current events, and never say no to the opportunity. If you’re available, you’ll become a reputable and reliable source for editors. She also recommends pitching your own news stories to these outlets. “The smaller the community, the better chance you have of getting the exposure.”
What to know if you’re planning to sell your agency
In another session at Travel MarketPlace East, Doug Crozier, partner at the firm of Heifetz, Crozier and Law, discussed how to prepare a travel agency for sale. From a practical point of view, he gave advice on getting in a good position, both mentally and documentarily.
1. Line up your professionals.
Line up advisors, including a professional lawyer and accountant, and make sure they know your intentions and concerns. “It’s easy, as a client, to assume I know things you know, but I don’t. Many times, I discovered a relevant fact on day ten, instead of day one,” Crozier said.
Valuing an agency is something a lawyer can’t help you with, but an accountant with travel experience can give you a more informed valuation, Crozier said. The best option, however, is professional evaluators, which might be more expensive, but you will get a more accurate number.
“Each agency is unique, and it can be difficult to find someone who knows the industry,” he said.
2. Format the deal.
Decide whether you are going to be selling shares or assets. Typically, vendors prefer to sell shares because of capital gains and tax treatment; purchasers want to buy assets, for taxes and liability. When a purchaser buys assets, they’re not buying skeletons in the closet; a complaint against the agency will not affect the purchaser.
Once you’ve decided, create a letter of intent, listing the sale price and other key commercial points in one or two pages, “so you can decide early on if there is a deal to be made or not,” Crozier said. This letter can be binding or non-binding.
If the letter of intent is agreed upon, the next document Crozier urges you to have is a non-disclosure agreement. “You want the prospective purchaser to sign before you start showing financial documents.”
He also advised to decide early on how to handle bookings that are open during the closing process, including who will get that revenue.
3. Handle staff liabilities.
It can be a potential liability if you’re going to terminate staff, as they can be entitled to a significant amount of notice, he said. “If you have staff that are valuable, you’re going to want to contract them in, so they don’t leave and go to competition. It’s a delicate, case-specific issue, how you deal with staff.”
In some cases, you may want to offer them the opportunity to purchase, even if you know they cannot do so financially, to ease any resentment.
4. Tie up loose ends.
Consider that, when renewing your lease, the best case would be a short-term lease with a set rate of renewal. As for computers, purchasers are going to ask if computer software is properly bought or pirated. They may also ask if you are anti-spam compliant. And lastly, get your minute books brought up to date.
5. Know the rules of the game.
Educate yourself on the rules associated with the sale of an agency. TICO, IATA and your consortium can help with this, Crozier said.