Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

It is unusual for a tour operator to say on the record that it's having a down year. Most tour operations are privately held and don't have to release any financial information. Most won't. Or they will give predictably sunny answers in response to questions about how their business is trending.

Last week, I met with Gavin Tollman, CEO of megaoperator Trafalgar, and in response to one of my first questions, he said, "2016 has been the first down year Trafalgar has had since 2009."

His analysis of why 2016 has been a challenging year spanned a number of issues, from terror events in Europe to a prevalent feeling of economic malaise to political distractions to nervousness about an uncertain future.

But out of this miasma he saw a fascinating opportunity.

"Of the 400 or so people we had in Paris, or about to arrive there [at the time of the Nov. 13 attacks], we had zero cancellations," he said. "Zero. And only a few people who at that time held bookings [to Paris] canceled."

Tollman continued, "The digital trends we track on our websites provide instant [entry] to the consumer mind. And what struck me as profound was that although there was an immediate drop-off on searches following [the attacks], interest bounced right back on Day 10. And what consumers were asking us and our travel agent partners was, 'What do you think? Is it safe?'"

Those questions, and the fact that guests already in Paris or headed there didn't cancel, clicked together as an epiphany for Tollman. Consumers wanted to see Europe, they trusted Trafalgar's judgment and were turning to them for reassurance and advice. It inspired Trafalgar to launch a campaign called "We're with you all the way," which emphasized the company's expertise and indirectly reinforced confidence in its ability to take care of guests, even in uncertain times.

The campaign was rolled out through travel agencies as well as on the company website, but Tollman saw a pattern emerge that presented yet another challenge.

And opportunity.

"The agents who embraced the campaign did unbelievably well and saw their business grow," he said. And in doing so, Tollman believed, they were embracing their own role as experts. Those who were uncertain about their expertise failed to deliver the business.

The problem, he realized, was bigger than the challenges that parts of Europe presented in 2016. It more closely tracked to "something I hear frequently," Tollman said. "I'm asked [by travel advisers] how to compete with online travel agencies and other competitive models. I say to agents, 'Worry about yourself. Your expertise is the value that you add. Take care of customers, and they'll always come back.'"

Sometimes, he said, they'll respond that he doesn't understand their situation. "They say, 'My clients have already done their research on the internet. They come in knowing what they want.'

"I respond that if I were to wake up with a fever, go to WebMD, print out a diagnosis and bring it to my doctor, and if all he did was read what I brought and hand me a prescription -- can you imagine that? -- I would go to another doctor."

The reason clients go to an adviser in the first place is for knowledge and expertise, and if the adviser doesn't deliver, they won't be back, "especially at moments like this," he said.

Trafalgar president Paul Wiseman said that after speaking further with clients and travel advisers, the company discovered a "huge disconnect" between how consumers want to talk about guided vacations and how advisers qualify them. Travelers want to talk about what they enjoy about a vacation, whereas agents want to talk about the "rational" or structural aspects of travel, the where, when and how much.

"We realized the problem was in communications," Tollman said. "A client would come in and say, 'I'm thinking of going to Italy this year.' The adviser would say, 'Do you want to go on a cruise, travel on your own or go on a tour?' Not 'What do you want to see or discover?' Nothing about their lifestyle. There was no engagement. We realized some advisers needed help understanding the language of the customer."

To this end, Trafalgar began offering a "Business With Breakfast" workshop to help narrow the communications delta. In it, advisers learn that rational thinking might have its place, but it's certainly not at the beginning of the sales cycle.

This year will end as a down year, Tollman said, but thanks in part to the communications workshops, 2017 is already looking good. "I say that with humbleness," he said, "because at this time last year, I was patting myself and the entire team on the back."

There are plenty of takeaways from Tollman and Wiseman's experiences in 2016, but the most important lesson from my perspective is how challenging times can become great opportunities to make improvements that will fuel a business to greater heights once better times return. Even if unanticipated events should have a negative impact on Trafalgar's progress in 2017, the year will nonetheless end stronger than it would have if Trafalgar had not seen the challenges of 2016 as opportunities.

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