TMP West Opens As Canadian Advisors Resolve to Take Back Control of their Futureby Richard D'Ambrosio /
Hundreds of travel industry representatives attending the opening general session of Travel MarketPlace West say they are accepting the shifting uncertainty of an industry beset with coronavirus, but are determined to both assist clients through their fears, and prepare for an eventual return to normal travel booking patterns.
“We always have had to adapt,” said Travel Market Report Executive Director, Canada Geraldine Ree in her opening remarks. She reflected on a travel industry career that has spanned everything from a spate of recent viruses, all the way back to the first war with Iraq.
Despite the recent fall off in bookings – 61% of agent attendees in the opening session said they have experienced five or fewer cancelled bookings – “this current situation is just sharpening our skills,” Ree said.
Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), said that up until Mar. 1, Canadian travel agencies weren’t seeing any substantial changes in advance booking patterns. But then, on Mar. 2, “things started to change,” Paridis said, noting how corporations started to impose travel restrictions on their employees for both business and leisure travel.
During a retail agency panel discussion, Mary Jane Hiebert, ACTA chair and with Canada One Travel, recalled how she became an agency owner in the 90s, just as the airline industry was cutting agent commissions to zero. That experience taught Hiebert how to look for the silver lining, in even the most precarious times.
“My career has been spent learning how to cope, breathe, be calm, and know, we’ll get through it,” she said.
Meanwhile, keynote speaker Derek Lloyd, national director of sales, Canada, Norwegian Cruise Line, described the current drop in travel sales as “a temporary blip. It’s painful right now. Let’s not pretend it’s not. But we need to prepare for whenever ‘normal’ returns, and start planning now for what are we going to do to grow our business.”
Attendees of TMP West.
About 40 days after SARS fell off the news headlines in 2003, “our bookings went through the roof,” recalled Susan Bowman, Transat’s vice president marketing and industry relations. “You should be staying in communication with your clients, because when the time is right, we will book that vacation for them. Or maybe you will book them now with the right travel insurance.”
Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer at TRAVELSAVERS, said her network is “seeing more changes than we are seeing cancellations. We’re moving some people out a little further. That should give you some reassurance.”
David Harris, CEO at Ensemble, took a similar approach to assessing the current market. “It is difficult times,” he conceded, but if advisors stay calm and communicate proactively and objectively, they can steer their clients and their business through them. For example, Ensemble has produced template email client communications and social media posts to help its advisors be more proactive.
The majority of Transat agents are being proactive, said Bowman. “What I see are agents communicating with existing customers in their communities, hosting community events, proving their value,” she said.
One agent attendee who asked the general session panel a question said she had spent almost three days calling all of her clients who are scheduled to travel through September. “I was letting them talk to me instead of me talking to them,” she said.
Executives like Mazza cautioned attendees to not think of all travelers as a monolithic group, all fearful of traveling. “There is a vast population out there still willing to travel. Those clients are out there.”
Chad Kowalenko, market sales manager, Canada, at Celebrity Cruises, agreed. “There are two types of clients in the marketplace right now. Some are scared and they’ve shut down. And then there are others who are interested in booking a cruise,” said Kowalenko.
“The tap is not shut off. It may just be turned down,” he went on, and advisors will be able to take advantage of promotions and chances to upgrade their clients into categories they might not have found themselves able to afford previously. “Are there going to be deals this year? Yes. There are going to be deals this year,” he said.
Travel industry execs talking business building and disruptions at TMP West.
Lloyd discussed how despite lingering misperceptions about Millennials, that group of Canadians is becoming increasingly important to the travel industry as a driving source for future bookings. While they often carry the image of lazy slackers, with low discretionary income, in fact, Lloyd said, their buying power is now equal to that of the Baby Boomers.
He described Millennials as “the next greatest source of business. We have got a really, really bad picture of who Millennials are. We need to stop with pretending that Millennials can be dismissed,” he said. “They are absolutely key to your business now. And they will be key to your business in the future.”
If you have downtime, take advantage of it
Members of the retail agency panel discussed many tactics advisors can deploy if their phones aren’t ringing, and they have already rescheduled and cared for their impacted clients.
If you’re not with a network, and finding that being independent is leaving you with gaps in your services, you might want to start talking to a host agency or consortia, Hiebert said.
Additionally, she added, you can use the current news as a teaching moment for clients before they book with you again. “This is a great opportunity for agents and agencies to educate the public,” Hiebert said.
For example, “We’re learning more about travel insurance daily because of the news about coronavirus. You should be communicating to clients how important it is to deal with a travel agent and about why people need insurance.”
Advisors at TMP West in Vancouver.
Bowman described how Transat is hosting a continuous stream of agent webinars and training on supplier changes, like travel insurance. “There’s a huge effort underway, and one side of our business is just focused on that. On the other side, our BDMs are working with owners and ICs, helping them build business plans,” so that when the industry does return to normal, Transat agents are better positioned to manage their agencies.
Hiebert also recommended advisors be open to helping travelers who booked through another channel. “There are going to be people you help who could become lifelong clients,” she said.
“It’s your time to shine,” Bowman said. “Some of our owners in local communities are promoting that they will help anyone with a booking, even if they booked somewhere else. My attitude continues to be, be as proactive and noisy as you can be to help people at this time.”
Meanwhile, Harris recommended that agents review their customer relationship management database and devise a strategy to ask for referrals. And TRAVELSAVERS’ Mazza advised agents to ask for testimonials.