Hard times are not times to hunker down

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Bob StalbaumYou know all too well that the travel industry is facing some challenges right now: Our imploding economy. Client losses in the stock market. Noncommissionable fees. Competition from Internet discounters. And let's not forget airlines that have gone off the deep end turning travelers off instead of on.

Our list of problems goes on and on. But I'm certain you know the impact of these issues far better than I.

From where I sit, though, these issues aren't most travel agency owners' biggest problem. Our industry has a pervasive and more serious concern, one that will get more serious in the very near future unless we acknowledge and finally confront it. Our real problem is complacency.

The good news: This is one predicament that can be dealt with head-on and permanently eliminated. First, let me define the term. Complacency is a feeling of contentment. It's being OK with "what is." It is failing to see beyond the horizon and failing to see, or do, anything about the real opportunities before us. It's being reactive, instead of proactive.

As someone who has now worked with more than 1,600 travel agencies, I see complacency a lot, and I think we vastly underestimate both its negative power and its prevalence.

In 2007, our industry seemed to be doing fine. Agencies were so busy that many owners felt they didn't have time to breathe. "Business is great!" I would hear.

But was it really? Those owners who felt fine in 2007 were complacent when they shouldn't have been. Perhaps they felt that because people seemed to be traveling and spending money with abandon, things would stay that way forever. The truth is, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Jump forward to 2009. The tide turned. Phones stopped ringing, and the door didn't open enough. Most owners indicated their business was down 20% or more last year.

Most agencies responded to the downturn by cutting staff. That might have reduced losses, but it sure didn't resolve the lack of business. This winter, business seems to have picked up a bit. Owners are telling me they are busy, and some are starting to feel hopeful once again. They shouldn't.

Here's the deal: Letting your business rise or ebb based upon market conditions isn't going to get you to where you need to be. What agencies needed to do in 2007 was to develop a plan for sustaining their growth, even when business declined. Most didn't. They were complacent.

Right now, what agency owners need to be thinking about is how they are going to come up with a plan to offset the losses in business and revenues they incurred last year. The smart agencies are not just praying for the tide to rise again.

Now, I fully recognize that cash flow is an issue for every agency today, and this is a real problem. I also realize that most agency owners feel they are doing everything they can to deal with this new crisis. The problem is, all too often we mistake activity for accomplishment. To me, action means developing a plan to ensure real forward progress every day.

Real issues and flaws in an organization's current business model must be dealt with head-on. You must recognize that what you are doing today is probably no longer working well. It certainly won't continue to work into the future. Set a timetable to fix what is broken. This isn't a time to hunker down or be complacent or pray for a better day. It is a time to effect meaningful change.

Bob Stalbaum, a well-known travel industry consultant, develops training seminars and turnkey marketing campaigns designed to help agencies increase their sales. He is president of Strategies for Success and can be reached at [email protected].

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