Starting as a retail travel agent in Alexandria, Minnesota in 1978, Gloria Mickelson has seen dramatic and subtle changes in consumers, suppliers and the role of the travel advisor over the 40 years she has spent in the industry.
Whether it is the outward impact of technology, new laws and regulations, or the behaviors of consumers, Mickelson believes that there will always be a place for good, qualified leisure agents. But, the profession must continue to evolve to grow and remain profitable.
For example, no longer can the typical agent see themselves as waiting for the phone to ring, and then planning a trip when a new client comes aboard. They have to be equally involved in generating sales leads through different channels, including email and social media.
“Because of the change in travelers, travel agencies work harder to promote their travel agency businesses, so that people know they are alive and well. Agents who once primarily booked travel now are actively involved in promoting the business and finding new customers,” said Mickelson, who this year will be stepping down as director of educational services at Travel Leaders Network.
In today’s competitive environment, “we need to continue to build sales skills and measure close ratios to see how we are doing. That is a measurement that is so often not done in travel agencies because it is difficult to do. But, the value of measuring this is huge. It’s satisfying to know that you talked to 25 travelers last week and you closed (deposits and/or final payments secured) 30 percent of them and the following week you closed 35 percent. I think we all like to make progress and be successful.”
In her first two years at Bursch Travel in Alexandria, Mickelson worked as an agent, group travel supervisor, and eventually manager of the agency. In 1988, she joined Ask Mr. Foster Travel, which at the time was owned by Carlson Travel, but operated under that separate name.
Originally a high school English teacher, Mickelson found her calling at Ask Mr. Foster/Carlson Travel in training and educating other agents, and spent the next 30 years serving in that capacity. She has held other positions, including sitting on the board of directors for the American Society of Travel Agents.
Technology changes everything
The greatest change in her 40 years, Mickelson said, is the variety and sophistication of technology. “In 1978, when I started, we had OAGs (Official Airline Guide paper-bound schedules), tariff pages, hotel books and phones. Now, we have booking tools provided by our supplier partners, online corporate booking tools, GDS, customer relationship management systems, social media for marketing and much more.”
“As the technology continues to change, travel professionals need to learn and relearn these tools. Think of the continual updates a person gets for Facebook – then multiply that by at least 10 for all the technology changes the typical agent has to stay on top of,” Mickelson said.
Couple that technology change with the evolution of consumers’ dependence on agents, and agent training needs to incorporate value selling as well. “More than ever, travelers have so much more knowledge of the world and destinations and the desire to truly experience a place,” she said. “Gone are the days when the only options were to call the travel agency.”
As a result, “agents need to ask really smart questions to truly understand what the traveler is looking for and then know their destinations and suppliers to make a good match,” she said, reinforcing a professional advisor’s value.
“We know that travelers love people who specialize in a destination or vacation type, like cruises. Travelers search for specialists on the web every day. Agents now are focusing on a specialty area they have a strong knowledge of and strong passion for, and travelers are loving that.”
While technology has democratized information, it also has increased traveler expectations for prompt replies and servicing. “The speed we need to do what we do has shortened. Travelers are impatient for the answers,” she said.
Training never stops
As Mickelson prepares for retirement, she offers the following three tips for individual agents and agency owners looking to maintain training that makes a difference:
1. Never lose your passion for learning
“Follow what Henry Ford once said: ‘Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.’ So, stay young and keep learning.”
2. Focus on priority improvements
“When individuals participate in a training program of any type, it is so easy to forget and not implement the ideas that were presented. Select two things from that program and make those your action items, then practice them immediately during the first week,” she said.
When it is a manager/employee situation, “the manager should know the two action items and then follow-up and coach the employee accordingly.” When it is an IC who manages their own business, “a peer group or study group can be invaluable to share ideas and help keep you on track.”
3. Build a learning path for yourself on an annual basis
“Put those goals into a plan that has 2-3 specific action items with a deadline. Do this every day and you will learn and grow and never be bored.”