Successful travel agents have to strike a balance between focusing on bringing in new clients, and generating more business from their existing customer base. Knowing what an existing group of clients think about what makes them happy traveling, and developing their trust, makes them a powerful reserve for future sales.
Cate Caruso, owner and principal travel designer at True Places Travels, based in Albany, Oregon, is using this mindset shift on her business, approaching it less like a conventional travel agency, and more like she is an investment advisor.
“Instead of constantly being in reactive mode, with customers coming to me looking for the lowest price, it’s way more fun working with people who trust you, and like you, and have a long-term plan to work with you,” Caruso said.
“This is not rocket science. You want to uncover your clients’ wants and needs, the same way you do when someone calls you one-off for a trip. But, it is a new way of approaching your business overall, instead of hoping and wishing you’ll find clients off social media and off websites,” she said.
Caruso has been working on the shift ever since Virtuoso launched its “Return on Life” consumer campaign and partnership with Merrill Lynch Wealth Management in 2015.
“The market forces wealth managers are up against are similar to us agents. Online trading forced them out of the old proposition of waiting for trades to come to them. They had to step into a new world of being proactive, and formulating investment strategies and relationships for and with their clients,” said Caruso.
One wealth manager told her. “We’re not in the money business. We’re in the people business.”
“I thought, ‘Agents aren’t in the travel business. We’re in the people business, too,’” Caruso said.
Define your target client clearly
Part of the success formula is clearly identifying potential clients. According to Virtuoso, its top clients bring in about 40 percent of the network’s sales, spending about $128,000 a year on travel. The average age of these frequent travelers is 62, while a third are under 54 years old. Virtuoso agents say 90 percent of these clients are repeat customers.
“You need to define who you work with, before defining how you work,” Caruso said. Agents looking to develop this strategy should be prepared to ask target clients relationship questions, specifically if they want to partner with you long-term, Caruso said. “If they don’t want to go there, you might want to think about whether they are the right client for you.”
Over the years, Caruso has studied wealth managers, their sales training and strategies, to formulate a strategy for her business. She also has subscribed to wealth management industry newsletters for advisors (not consumers), and reads blogs and books about being a wealth management advisor. “I’m trying to get inside the skin of that person who is successful at this.”
Speaking to and partnering with a Merrill Lunch wealth management investment executive pushed her over the top, however. “He brought it to where I could understand the value proposition for what agents do for a living,” she said.
He asked Caruso to present to his colleagues what she does and how she does it. She was a rousing success, and gained the confidence to press harder with her new strategy. “That was two years ago, and the doors blew off of my business after that,” she said. Today, 75 percent of Caruso’s business comes from working with wealth managers.
“I tell clients, ‘Let me step in and help you forecast those long-range plans for your priority to travel,’” she said, using qualifying questions like, ‘Where do you want to be 3-5 years from now? What kinds of vacations do you want to take and who do you want to be traveling with?’
“Agents and advisors need to wrap their heads around this long-term sales cycle, the timeline it takes to establish that trust. It’s a brand-new client relationship style,” she said.
Caruso advises other agents to start with the stories behind their clients’ lives and what’s important to them. “That is where sales gets its lift-off. You’re more like a strategic coach. They know where they have been, but they may not know where they are literally going.”
Virtuoso testing tool to support long-term relationship-building
Early next year, Virtuoso plans to extend its support of agents like Caruso when it rolls out “Virtuoso Orchestrator,” a proprietary travel planning platform that helps agents draw customers into a discussion about their future journeys.
While the network is not publicly promoting the service yet, a spokeswoman told Travel Market Report that Orchestrator “allows the travel advisor to manage an inventory of time and the travels that span that time, rather than on a per-trip basis.”
She described the online tool as “fun and interactive,” and how after inputting information, “the client ends up with their own Netflix-style personal portfolio that builds anticipation and excitement for each new trip.”
“Orchestrator is excellent for milestone travel planning,” said Mark Simões, vice president, leisure services, a Balboa Travel executive in Austin, Texas, who has had a chance to review the tool.
While he would not disclose details prior to the formal launch of the tool, Simões said he feels Orchestrator “creates loyalty with the agent in the process, and helps make our job a little bit easier. It tells us what products our client will likely be interested in as we understand their travel aspirations.”
While Caruso feels she has learned a lot of new skills and a breakthrough business strategy, she also sees direct parallels in the way most agents already operate. She feels that if agents simply leverage their relationship-building and qualifying skills, but work on proactive, long-term sales, they too can succeed.
“Leverage your existing book of business and mine the wealth in there, because you are probably sitting on some golden opportunities,” Caruso said.