Agents' advice for group bookings: Specialize, keep eyes and ears open

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Travel agents looking to boost their bottom line might find that group business is the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.



The benefits are multipronged; the agents' commissions and databases expand, and their clients snag reduced rates and discounts.

Hawaii is among the best places to cultivate group business.

Beyond destination weddings and family reunions, agents can broaden their scope to encompass social groups, recreation clubs, alumni associations, student events, faith-based organizations, retirement communities and more.

Here are five tips from travel agents who have found success in this lucrative market.

Monitor trends

No doubt your clients are into travel. But what else makes them tick? Especially in Hawaii, culinary travel is going gangbusters. Foodie groups can take it full circle by schmoozing with chefs at farm-to-table eateries and then "ag-touring" to meet farmers who literally grow the ingredients in their meals.

Garnishing the recipe are such major gastro celebrations as the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and Kapalua Food & Wine Festival. Beyond existing clients, turn to local radio stations, cooking schools, wine bars and food festivals as resources to spread the word.

Alexandra SklierenkoAside from destination wedding and honeymoon clients, Alexandra Sklierenko with Flight Centre Business Travel, links with wedding coordinators who arrange nuptials.

"Our couples range from early 20s to mid-30s and travel with anywhere from five to 50 people," the Toronto-based business travel consultant said. "I'm seeing a trend in couples having their travel agent and wedding coordinator work together to facilitate the whole event."

For Terry Uemura of Seattle's Hawaii General Store and Travel, it's all about teamwork.

"We've been seeing more bookings for Native American canoe clubs and soccer teams going to Hawaii for competitions," he said. "I'm currently working on a family reunion group for next summer and constantly book destination wedding couples with their friends and families."

Become an expert

When agents establish a niche area of expertise, groups will anticipate even greater value in their services.

"Whether it's honeymoons, destination weddings or lesbian and gay travel, agents need to specialize in something," said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays/Journese. "Your clients want to know you're an expert in a particular niche."

Hilo Naniloa Hotel golf courseIt can be simple and in your comfort zone. You can base it on a travel style, special interests or a destination like the Hawaiian Islands.

Completing the Ke Kula O Hawaii Destination Specialist Program, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau's travel agent training program, will help position you as a Hawaiian Islands guru.

Sklierenko said that agents who haven't visited Hawaii will still find the program is an amazing summary of the Islands, their individual offerings and specific excursions/activities/accommodations available on each.

"Educating myself is the only way to stay a step ahead," she said. "It makes it easy for me to make recommendations based on my clients' needs, interests and time frame."

Uemura agreed.

"Knowledge is key," he said. "Visit the islands and participate in fam trips offered by the different island visitors bureaus."

He also suggests selling beyond sun and sand by experiencing local restaurants and taking tours so you can recommend insider's tips from a firsthand experience.

"The Hawaiian culture can also be experienced through music, dance and art," Uemura said. "Visit the GoHawaii.com website to see what local events are happening while your clients are there. Then share these activities with them."

Network

Hot prospects surround you. You may have clients traveling with a youth sports team or a church group on bookings made by another agency. Dig into your clients' interests and make them aware that you also book group travel in addition to leisure. Plant the seed on how enjoyable it is to travel with special-interest groups — anything from golfers' getaways and class reunions to gardening enthusiasts' escapes.

Susan RederSusan Reder, managing partner at Frosch Classic Cruise & Travel in Woodland Hills, Calif., is high on romancing corporate accounts.

"Most have sales meetings and incentives, with Hawaii being a top destination," she said, adding that the diversity of Frosch's agents leads to referrals from their own clubs and affiliations.

Melissa Sutton with All About Travel in Sioux Falls, S.D., hypes social media, email blasts and webinars.

"I get a lot of clients from Facebook by sharing my passion for the Islands — photos I have personally taken and stories from happy clients after they get home," she said. "As they share these posts, the word starts to go around that you are the person to ask about Hawaii."

Another megatargeted option is Google AdWords. Establish an account and an AdGroup for Hawaii and then create an ad that will run in your geographic area. When someone searches using keywords such as "Hawaii Travel" or "Hawaii Resorts," your agency will pop up.

Manage wisely

Beyond generating larger commissions, group business can ignite a flow of return clients and word-of-mouth advertising, provided you manage and arrange those groups wisely.

Be sure to define a single contact within the group to serve as its voice. Otherwise, you could be inundated with phone calls and emails from every person on the manifest. When that's the case, the group dominates your time, taking valuable attention away from other clients.

Stress to clients that by working with one agent, members of the group can be on the same flight, combine ground transportation and stay on the same floor or in the same building. And leaders can reach out to a single contact if there are bumps along the way.

A family at Makena Beach on Maui.Sklierenko adds that when she's booking groups, she always tries to find the most direct routing possible to reduce the risk of missed connections or passengers getting lost in an unfamiliar airport.

Maximize customer service

While group business can help you reap higher monetary rewards, it comes with a price. It's important to stress to the group leader that it is mandatory to meet deadlines on securing reservations and locking in rates. And show support to that brave individual who is typically juggling multiple demands to satisfy everyone.

Especially with destination weddings and family reunions, travelers are typically multigenerational. So it's vital to find resorts and activities that offer something for everyone.

"If there are children in the group, kids clubs are a must," Sklierenko said. "I look to see whether the beach is easily accessible and that there are enough pools and restaurants. All these factors contribute to the success of the group's time in Hawaii and will keep them coming back to you."

"We all know booking groups can be a bit like herding cats," Sutton said. "You have to be very patient — from the first phone call all the way through the last thank-you note."

She added that by nature, more can go wrong with booking groups than with a leisure couple or family.

"The logistics require careful planning on your part, so that the client feels it was all easy and seamless," she said. "That's what will make you a hero in their eyes."

Sklierenko attributes much of her group and leisure success to Flight Centre Business Travel's wholesaler, Gogo Worldwide Vacations.

"Gogo's ability to custom package everything from airport transfers and accommodations to excursions makes it so easy to sell packages," she explained. "It's something that my clients can't find or build themselves, so it's an easy sell."

Also consider working with wholesalers like Classic, Pleasant and Blue Sky that have dedicated group sales departments. These travel consultants are well versed in bulk business and know it's their job to help you beef up your bottom line with bookings that flow smoothly.
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