It is the perennial challenge for most small businesses, especially leisure travel agents: generating new sales leads.
Repeat and referral business typically makes up less than 50 percent of the average travel agent’s annual revenues, says consultant Dan Chappelle, so continuously attracting “warm” sales leads that can be converted into closed sales is important to the long-term success of most travel professionals.
One travel agency, Ultimate Travel, in Gilbert, Arizona, produces about $3 million a year in annual sales through a lead generation program that integrates social media marketing, email campaigns, digital advertising, and a strategically designed website.
The intricate network of digital tools is the result of 15 years of dedication by Ultimate Travel’s co-owner, and former IT executive, Geoff Millar, who is also a sought-after speaker at travel agent industry conferences for his online marketing expertise. Everyone wants to know the not-so-secret-secrets to how he and his wife, co-owner and longtime travel agent Sharon, have built an agency doing more than $6 million in annual sales per year.
Geoff and Sharon Millar.
Working with Sharon in 2002, Geoff started putting together his thoughts for what would become Ultimate Travel. He saw an opportunity to drive hundreds of sales leads a month through the internet, to beat the online travel agents at their own game.
“I said to Sharon, ‘You have the travel experience. I have the data technology knowledge. Let’s use the internet as a tool to generate sales leads, but sell face-to-face.’”
Geoff spent a full year studying internet marketing, absorbing every blog, online article and digital marketing research paper that he could find. In 2003, the Millars opened Ultimate Travel, with a specialization in all-inclusive resorts, river cruises, and Hawaii.
The foundation of a great website
The foundation, Geoff knew, was having a powerful website that could draw in total strangers conducting searches for the services, destinations and suppliers that Ultimate Travel would offer, and capture their contact information.
“Our websites needed to be workhorses for advertising and marketing,” Millar said. To make that investment work, Millar invested heavily in understanding what consumer travel “keywords” (e.g. “Waikiki all-inclusive ocean facing room”) were the most powerful, and how to fill his web pages with content so that Ultimate Travel appeared high in searches.
He paid a build-your-own website company $49 a month and did all the work on his own. He studied his website traffic for hours a day to understand what content worked, where visitors went when they arrived, and how quickly they left (known as “bounce rate”).
Initially, nearly one out of two website visitors were viewing one page and leaving the Ultimate Travel website. “We couldn’t get beyond a certain level of traffic and sales,” he said. So, Ultimate Travel paid $15,000 to an experienced web firm to design a custom website.
Studying their website traffic data, they learned where clients were coming from, which other websites were referring traffic to them, and what keywords were resonating the most. “We adjusted the content to better match what they were looking for,” he said.
The Millars also made a crucial move. They built a separate website for each of Ultimate’s three specialties. “This way, if someone types in a keyword related to those niches, and the whole site is related to that keyword, we’ll rank high for unpaid and paid searches,” Millar said. The results started pouring in. That bounce rate dropped from 45 percent to 17 percent, and the phones started to ring.
The Millars also ensured that every page has a call to action, and that the agency’s contact info is prominently displayed. Potential clients visiting the Ultimate Travel website will find at least three ways to contact Geoff or Sharon, and the company’s six independent contractors: email, a toll-free telephone line, and their lead form.
“You don’t build a website simply because someone tells you that you have to have one,” Millar said. “The most important reason is to generate leads. Everything we did with our design, the focus was to optimize the areas where we can best generate leads.”
Digital advertising generates awareness
To supplement those sales leads coming through unpaid/organic searches, Millar also dabbled in digital advertising, and today uses Google ads, some Facebook advertising, and local online “yellow page” websites.
“All of this combined is great for branding, finding people who want to travel, are talking about travel, and driving them to our websites. But our websites are the circle in the middle,” Millar said.
For example, Millar pays about $250 a year to a company called YEXT, which centralizes management of online listings at dozens of yellow page sites like Manta and Yelp, so that updating one listing updates listings everywhere.
Out of all of the agency’s inbound phone calls, the most are driven by online yellow page ads, Millar said. “People still use the phonebook to contact you like they used to in the old days. They just do it online now,” Millar said.
When their business started to grow, the Millars hired a digital marketing company to develop and manage their paid advertising and creative. Today, they spend about $3,500 a month across yellow pages, Google ads and some limited social media advertising, like Facebook. This investment drives about 100-150 sales leads a week, and approximately $3 million in annual bookings.
The ads that work the best, Millar said, are not short-term, special promotions. “Our advertising focuses on our being an expert consultant. ‘Let us help you sift through the tons of information out there and find the vacation you are looking for,’” he said.
Email is your best marketing tool
While targeted online ads can help you find clients who aren’t yet aware of you, what you do with these warm leads when they find you relies on understanding the power of email.
As visitors accumulate at the Ultimate Travel website, the agency is capturing email addresses and other contact information. Today, the company’s Constant Contact CRM has more than 6,000 clients in it, a list Millar views as the “ultimate” sales tool.
The company emails these 6,000 contacts once a month, offering travel tips, special offers, and news. Those who don’t open the email receive a follow-up email four days later. Millar embeds photos and text in each email, and says Ultimate’s open rate is 15 percent. Of those emails that are opened, the clickthrough rate to Ultimate’s website is 17 percent.
Like everything else the Millars do online, the company is always measuring success, and refining their strategy. “We’re constantly testing, to understand what day of the week is best for us, what times of day, etc.,” he said, with the ultimate goal being a closed sale.
Tips for agents to supersize
Geoff offers the following tips to agents to help them supersize their online lead generation programs:
“You better know more about what you are selling than your client does. And that knowledge should be reflected in your website content, your newsletter, every aspect of your digital lead generation. Specializing is what attracts your ideal client, and increases the likelihood you will close on the sale.
“Once you choose your specialty, you need to trust in your business plan and stick with it. When I do my trainings, the hardest thing to convince other agents to do is to pass up a sale that isn’t in your niche. We tell 10-15 clients a day that we are not the right travel agency for them because they are looking for lowest price, not the best value, or they want us to book something we don’t specialize in. You don’t lose a sale that isn’t in your sweet spot. You lose the loss on the sale.”
2. Be persistent
He also advised agents to be persistent in learning about digital marketing. “It probably took me 3-4 years before I really started to understand how travel agency internet marketing and traffic works, and another year or so to refine and perfect our system. A lot of it was trial and error,” said Millar, who for the first four years in business worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Today, he is still working five and a half days a week.
3. Have the courage to spend money, but do it wisely
“Don’t look at marketing as a cost, look at the return on that cost. But, you have to be able forecast and track that return. Between our marketing agency’s service fees and our advertising budget, we’re spending about $4,200 a month to generate leads. We got to that point by testing different lead generation ads and tools, tracking sales, and refining that investment for the next ad.”
4. Test and learn
“You’re a travel agent, but you need to become expert at interpreting your data. Your website, your email vendor, your CRM, all provide you with data about who is visiting you online, where they came from, how they are responding when you contact them, and ultimately, whether they purchased from you and how much money you made from that sale. Come up with a formal marketing plan, test it, refine it, and test it again.”