One of my recent columns dealt with qualifying prospects ("Don't judge a book by its cover; qualify the prospect," June 8), offering a list of questions to ask and the rationale behind those questions to all who might be interested.
It was clear that many new (and some not so new) agents on our Facebook group (Travel Agency Best Practices) were searching for ways to narrow their choices to one, at most two, to streamline the vacation-planning process and provide the best service to their clients.
I offered a white paper containing those questions, which generated the greatest response to any column I had written, and the requests were still coming in at the end of September. (Read to the end of the column for information on receiving a copy if you're interested.)
I asked each recipient to critique the list and give me their unvarnished opinion of the questions. All were appreciative of receiving the list, and many offered constructive suggestions on how to improve them.
One especially astute observation came from my friend Jim Nathan, vice president of marketing at Vacation.com. He correctly pointed out that the very first qualifying round needed to establish whether the agent even wanted to do business with the person doing the inquiring.
About now, some of you are saying to yourselves, "Would you really turn away a viable prospect, for whatever reason?" I confess that for a few moments I was asking the same thing. But then it occurred to me that some owners encourage agents to make business decisions every day that close the door on a prospect.
Part of the impetus for this column sprang from a question a Facebook friend asked me. Basically, the Santee Sioux tribe in South Dakota has announced its intent to open a marijuana resort. The plan is to grow pot and sell it in a lounge, along with food and drink, as well as in a nightclub and eventually maybe even a casino. The expectation is that this "adult playground" could generate as much a $2 million profit per month for this tribe of about 400 who live some 45 miles north of Sioux Falls.
My friend wanted to know if our agency would be allowed to book this travel given the laws in Tennessee that proscribe possession, distribution or use of the drug in any form. It's a question that triggers others.
For example, gambling (other than a state-sponsored lottery that supports schools) is illegal in Tennessee, as well. Yet Las Vegas, Reno, Atlantic City and Tunica, Miss., among other destinations, beckon daily because gambling is legal in those destinations.
Similarly, alcoholic beverage consumption is legally prohibited in many parts of the U.S., while consumption of alcohol is common in many others, especially at resorts and on cruise ships, even on an airplane.
While it would appear to be legal for a travel retailer to offer trips to these destinations that offer activities that are not legal in his or her area, the question arises as to whether the retailer might choose not to move forward with a prospect for some reason.
Or consider travel that is legal both where the retailer resides as well as at the destination of interest.
For many, travel to Cuba is the next great destination for U.S. citizens as restrictions ease and additional infrastructure is put in place to handle the anticipated onslaught of tourists from all over the U.S. Land operators as well as cruise lines are actively working to add the Caribbean's largest island to mainstream vacation offerings as soon as remaining restrictions are lifted.
Elsewhere, trips for the express purpose of hunting wildlife ranging from birds to the largest land animals are available. In the main, these expeditions or safaris certainly fall into the category of a high-end vacation, selling for thousands of dollars and producing commission checks that have commas in them.
Many retailers are part of a consortium or other trade group that has preferred suppliers. More than a few of these retailers regularly receive calls asking for information on nonpreferred suppliers.
Other retailers receive requests for bookings on brands that they don't offer because they lack familiarity with the product or the travel type lies outside the retailer's niche. Maybe the product doesn't pay enough to justify the time required, or the supplier has demonstrated, at least in the eyes of the retailer, that travel agents just aren't that important, and they'll undercut or sell direct.
My favorite "run, do not walk, to the nearest exit" is the email solicitation written in broken English with terrible grammar wanting our best price for close-in air travel in business/first class, with the assurance that the sender has a credit card at the ready and is willing to pay whatever we want to charge.
All the above beg the question: How far does the retailer have to go before drawing a line somewhere for some reason and choosing not to do business with someone? When is enough enough?
Travel retailers already have to know a great deal about immigration, customs, visas, misdemeanor and felony convictions, child support in arrears and more, to the point that I sometimes wonder if "travel paralegal" might be a more appropriate title. We either need to know the answer or where to find the answer to such things as:
• What documentation does an adult traveling with a minor need from the nonaccompanying parent or guardian?
• Which countries require six months remaining passport validity beyond the planned return date? Which ones require only three months, and which require only that the passport be valid?
• What are entry restrictions for someone convicted of an offense that is a felony in the visited country regardless of the severity and nature of the offense under U.S. law? Here's a hint on this one: Find a way that is comfortable to you to determine if the prospect has a DUI or drug conviction. If they do, point them toward resources to determine what can or cannot be done for them by qualified others.
• What is the supplier's rule on stage of pregnancy for a traveler?
And all of these questions are for the clients we really want to work with!
Never mind that I don't want to work with someone who is asking about travel that involves activities I find morally reprehensible. One agent may have strong feelings about a marijuana vacation. Another might find it repugnant that someone takes pleasure in killing a magnificent animal, especially just to have it as a trophy.
Some might feel strongly about doing anything that would support or give the appearance of support for a government that they believe to be oppressive or abusive of human rights. Some years ago, organized trips to areas in Southeast Asia for the express purpose of exploiting children were offered. I'm not sure I know any travel professional who would have a problem walking away from that opportunity.
It's like this...
Making a morality-based decision to pursue or not pursue a piece of business is the prerogative of each of us. It behooves those making such decisions to come up with a way to walk away from any opportunity in a manner that doesn't create more problems than it solves.
It has been suggested that one way to accomplish that delicate task is to ask for a planning fee of sufficient value to prompt the prospect to decide that they do not wish to proceed. One ought to be judicious in setting the amount, though, lest it be insufficient to dissuade moving ahead. Or perhaps explaining that a particular inquiry is outside the retailer's field. Whatever the method, qualifying the prospect to decide if one wishes to serve the inquirer seems paramount.
For those who would like a copy of my white paper listing questions to ask and what they mean, send an email to [email protected] and put "Question List" in the subject line.