Training day: From frog tales to sales tips

Cruise editor Rebecca Tobin spent a day with travel agents at the Cruise Lines International Association's biannual CLIA Institute in Miami. Her report follows:

he Cruise Lines International Association bills its CLIA Institute as "a comprehensive two-day program for advanced sales, marketing and management skills."

Most of the attendees spent the day before the Institute officially opened taking additional CLIA courses with "power-selling" techniques. Sounds like serious stuff.

But it's not all serious. We are, after all, talking about vacations. Or are we? One of the interesting aspects of the Institute is that the seminar leaders, who are instructors at the University of Miami, are not travel professionals themselves.

"Sometimes we hear from ourselves so much that we forget there are other things out there," explained Tom Cogan, the director of CLIA's training programs.

CLIA has tweaked the program several times since it started in 1993, and so far about 5,700 agents have graduated from the program (although prospective students can relax; there's no exam at the end).

Here's how we spent a day:

• 7:30 a.m. Each attendee gets a CLIA tote and the official CLIA Institute three-ring binder full of all the materials needed for the course. The binder is divided into sections by course, with tabs labeled: "Attitude ... the Key to Success," "Successful Closing Strategies" and "Marketing Plans," among others.

I grabbed both my extra-strength coffee and the binder and took my seat.

The first order of business, according to Cogan: Introduce yourself to the people sitting next to you and tell them how wonderful they look.

I chatted with the three women on my right. Kathy Urbaniak, Shelbie Held and Pamela Smith had traveled from Homewood, Ill.; Fort McCoy, Wis.; and Plainview, Ark., respectively, to learn more about the cruise business.

The trio represented a cross section of agents with varied business cards.

Urbaniak is a "professional travel consultant" who works for Escape Cruises and Travel, which is owned by a husband and wife team.

Held, a "leisure vacation specialist," flies all over the world with Sato Travel to handle travel for the military.

And Smith is a home-based "senior agent" who gets most of her leads for the two-person Global Dream Vacations through the Internet.

In his introductory remarks, Cogan thanked the 139 retailers for attending what he likes to call "the Cadillac" of training programs. This program, he said, should teach us "not to be better travel agents but to be better salespeople."

• 8:15 a.m. CLIA binders out, pens poised and ready for note-taking. Let the learning begin.

Motivational speaker Joachim de Posada took the floor.

De Posada told a story about frogs.

"Three frogs are floating down a river on a leaf," he said. "One decides to jump out. How many are left?"

"Two," said the audience.

"No!" de Posada said. "Three. Because deciding to do it and doing it are two different things."

Between talking about the nine factors for success in business and appreciating the value of great employees, there were anecdotes about de Posada's native Cuba, elephants and Ghandi's grandson -- and laughter from the audience.

"He's a character," said Urbaniak as she flipped back and forth in her binder, taking notes in the printed version of de Posada's presentation.

• 9:15 a.m. Coffee break. I approached Linda Roessiger, who runs an agency in a Venice, Fla., Wal-Mart. "I'm bettering myself to be a better seller to our clients," she said.

"The attitude is important," she added. "To come here and not come back without enthusiasm for our team, you might as well not spend the money."

• 9:30 a.m. We reconvened. "I've already noticed shortcomings in myself," said Held. "This guy is a great motivational speaker," added Smith.

• 10:15 a.m. De Posada yielded the floor to Stephen Wolfson for a fast-paced seminar on "Consultative Telephone Selling"; in other words, telemarketing tips.

"People won't let you sell to them if they don't like you," Wolfson said.

Wolfson's task: To convince agents to call 30 prospective clients a day and invite them to the agency for wine and cheese or a continental breakfast. This tactic gets clients in the door of the agency, but more importantly, it gives agents an excuse to call a prospect with a nonthreatening sales pitch.

The idea of inviting clients to "the agency" wasn't quite so obvious to home-based agents in the audience, of whom there were many. In fact, about half the class said they were home-based or independently contracted.

The class also briefly discussed ways to convince clients to book with an agent and not on the Internet. A suggested rebuttal: "I understand that the [Internet] agencies' prices are better. But when you book with us, you become part of our family."

"That's what we do," Smith said.

• Lunch: A recap of the morning took place over plates of pasta.

"This is a whole different meaning of telemarketing," said Elizabeth Wong, a consultant with Unionville, Ontario-based Cruise Ship Centers.

Added her colleague Kathy Desson: "He's saying to call between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. [I thought] that was more intrusive. But if you can leave a message saying, 'Hi, stop by,' -- that might work."

"They kept it interesting," she added -- a reference to the fact that we had been in nonstop seminars for more than four hours.

• 1:30 p.m. Travel agents returned to the auditorium ready for another four hours of seminars. But we weren't prepared for "Effective Personal Sales Communications," taught by Debbie Huffman.

In this class, we learned how to identify personality types as an aid to selling.

First, we tackled our "communication style." Am I an introvert or an extrovert?

Huffman tossed out several characteristics of both -- "In an office of extroverts, there's talking all over the place," she said. Then, Huffman directed extroverts to gather on one side of the room, introverts on the other. Our task was then to introduce ourselves to neighbors.

Sure enough, after five minutes of getting-to-know-you conversation, we extroverts wouldn't quiet down.

"In selling [to introverts], you need to listen," Huffman told the extroverts after the room was silent. "Allow clients the opportunity to talk without interrupting them."

To the introverts, she said: "Allow clients to think out loud when describing their cruise needs."

• 4 p.m. Now that attendees had an opportunity to meet and mingle, the room was buzzing with conversation and laughter. Everyone seemed to be gearing up for the evening event, a night on the town hosted by the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

As I left the auditorium, I ran into de Posada, on his way in to conduct "Successful Closing Strategies." He handed me what looked like a million-dollar bill.

It turned out to be his business card.

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