Getting “Earmarked” is a pinnacle of achievement that certain travel advisors shoot for, spending years building their knowledge about Disney vacation destinations, and honing their marketing and sales skills so they can reach the elite level affording them special perks and insider access.
But getting to that exclusive level can be a challenge. Disney is known for only paying a straight 10% commission on the majority of its vacation products. Additionally, some advisors say, after learning insider tips from an agent-assisted booking, many travelers choose to book their next Disney vacations on their own.
So, what does it take to reach Earmarked status, and how can an agent profitably build their Disney sales? Travel Market Report reached out to a group of elite Disney travel advisors to ask them their best tips for success.
1. It will require a very personal love for all things Disney.
“I grew up going to Walt Disney World,” said Tracy McCoy, with Trips to the Mouse, in Austin, Texas. “Every November, we would load up the station wagon and drive down to Florida from Chicago. I have passed that love onto all four of my children. We have traveled to Disney World at least once a year since my oldest (now 19) was born. I believe so strongly in Disney destinations that selling my clients on a Disney vacation is easier — my passion and knowledge is genuine.”
“I have the Disney Obsession. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s my passion,” said Sonya Toole Little, of Sandcastle Wishes Travel, in Kimberly, Alabama. She visits professionally, and personally with her children and husband, 10-12 times a year. “The night before I’m heading to Disney for a trip, I can’t sleep. My kids can’t sleep. Disney is the only thing we will get up at 3 in the morning for.”
“The biggest reason we've been successful with selling Disney is because we are passionate about it,” said Kelly O'Brien Ortiz, owner of Guru Travel, an Earmarked agency in Elgin, Illinois. Her agency has been selling Disney for about 10 years. “We care so much, we wake up to make FastPass and dining reservations in the middle of the night, when they first become available. We actively travel to Disney destinations several times a year, not just for work, but for pleasure ... we know it, we love it and we want to share it.”
2. Learn how to sell up, especially as your clientele matures.
“As a rookie agent, your biggest mistake is to quote and price out of your own pocketbook,” Toole Little said. Taking advantage of Earmarked perks like complimentary admission passes and fams, Toole Little has been able to educate herself more on Disney’s higher-end properties, and describes herself now as a “deluxe resort snob.”
“Give your clients the variety of options, and describe to them the benefits of staying at a deluxe resort,” she said. “Help them understand how the Contemporary Resort is great for families with small children in strollers, because they are not going to waste hours going back and forth to the Magic Kingdom on buses.”
O'Brien Ortiz recounted how, when her agency first started off, “We were selling to mostly value, first-time clients. As our business has grown, so have our clients. Now we have a mix of value first-timers and larger multigenerational groups staying in Disney Villas or deluxe rooms.”
“It can be hard helping clients understand why they need to stay on-property versus off,” O’Brien Ortiz said, “but the experience is that much more.”
Kimberly Anwar, owner and president at Magic Family Getaways, said, “For clients who want a hassle-free family vacation, I will sell the benefits of the Magical Disney Express (airport to resort transportation), and how it is available only to guests staying at Walt Disney World Resorts.”
3. Visit as often as you can.
“Because I travel there so often, I am always up to date with the ever-changing parks,” said McCoy. “I know the parks like the back of my hand. I have actually received texts from clients, mid-trip, asking where the closest bathroom was to where they currently were, and I could answer without skipping a beat.”
McCoy has traveled with children of various ages (from 3 months up to 19 years), as well as extended family. “I have honeymooned at Disney World. And I have escaped on long weekends with the girls,” she said, “so I know what works and what doesn’t for a variety of clients.”
Shayla Northcutt, owner of the Northcutt Travel Agency, a Travel Leaders Network affiliate agency based in Houston, Texas, has 18 independent contractors working at her agency. “All of my ICs who sell Disney, and visited at least two to three times in 2019,” she said. “If you are going to do a good job serving your clients, you have to go every year. It doesn’t matter how many times I have been there; I see something new every year that makes me a better Disney agent.”
4. Develop your personal expertise.
Disney bookings are about 60-75% of the sales base for Jamie Santillo, owner and founder at Adventures by Jamie, in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Santillo lives about one-and-a-half hours from Disney World, and is striving to be Earmarked.
Santillo recently took advantage of discounted agent rates to stay at the Caribbean Beach Resort to get firsthand knowledge about how to sell it to clients who use a wheelchair, like she does.
“When I went to the hotel, I made sure I did a Facebook Live of my room, to demonstrate the accessibility features. The room I was in was an upgraded pirate-theme room, for me. That room would have been outside of my own budget,” she said. “As a result, I could see the room, do the tour, and over three days, do a number of Facebook Lives, capture photos and video to describe an experience I couldn’t have on my own.”
Ashley Parker, owner at Key to Adventure Travel, in Clare, Michigan, where about 70% of their bookings are with Disney, tries to distinguish herself by promoting how she knows the ins and outs of maximizing a client’s time.
“It might not sound like a big thing, but an advisor who understands the difference between a family stopping at a quick-service restaurant at the park, versus table service, could impact their day depending on what they want to do, or when their FastPass reservations are,” Parker said.
“I also educate my clients on things like transportation options for a dining reservation at a hotel, when they are going to be in the park all day,” she said. “Or if your child absolutely wants the Cinderella’s Castle dining experience, but there is no availability. As long as you are okay with a backup plan, I would direct you to the Norway section at Epcot, where you can still have dinner with the princesses.”
5. Develop your personal service value proposition.
For Toole Little, leveraging her CRM, TESS, to trigger reminder emails for booking her clients’ dining and FastPass reservations, helps her deliver on her service promise of covering all of the little details.
“It gets hard sometimes, because it is so competitive trying to retain your clients, to find loyalty for Disney reservations. I’ve seen clients lured away by a $25 gift card. So, you have to define why someone should purchase from you,” Toole Little said.
“There are some agents who will hand clients an itinerary and send them on their way,” Anwar said. “We want our clients downloading the [My Disney Experience] app on their phone, and we’ll spend time teaching them how to use it. It’s part of our booking process. I think it’s that king of handholding that leads to our referrals. I’ve seen people write on social media: ‘I booked with Kim. They will teach you the tips and tricks.’”
6. Find other vacation styles Disney clients will purchase.
Northcutt sees Disney as a way to bring in new clients. “You can’t sell just Disney. I want a client who I can plan every vacation for them, someone who also is open to going somewhere exotic.”
So, she leverages Disney’s popularity as a way to meet and wow customers looking for the extra service and attention that will bring them back for ocean cruises and other higher commission vacations.
O’Brien Ortiz agrees. “Disney is like a rite of passage. When a child is born, most parents begin dreaming of their first trip to Disney with their child,” she said. Anwar upsells land-only clients to Disney cruises when she feels the time is right.
7. Be persistent and growth will come.
“Have patience,” said Anwar. “It took me three to four years of hard work, every day, every year, to get to this level. It took me reaching out to my BDMs to sponsor movie nights, run postcard campaigns, learn how to use Disney’s e-brochures effectively.”
“It’s easier to sell it now, with all of the growth in properties and attractions,” said Northcutt. “Now, it’s mostly about qualifying the client for their budget, where they want to stay. The variety offers every agent opportunity, because with so many options, consumers need an educated agent to help them put together the right elements.”