HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — When Ronda Helton, owner of the Travel Connection Group in St. Louis, showed up for Travel Weekly's Global Travel Marketplace (GTM) event in Fort Lauderdale last summer, one of her major weaknesses as an agent, she said, was her lack of connections for selling Europe.
"I just didn't have the confidence to send people to Europe without knowing the supplier," she said.
But after two days at the show, which brings together a carefully vetted group of suppliers and successful agents, Helton said she saw her business transformed. She credited GTM with increasing her sales 65% between July 2015 and the end of that year.
Since then, she has leveraged the connections that she made not only to sell product but also to take fam trips that have buoyed sales. For example, a fam Helton took to Kauai in April led almost immediately to $20,000 in sales.
"This event changed my business and changed me as a person," Helton said.
Last week, she was back at the Diplomat Resort near Fort Lauderdale for the fourth annual edition of GTM. But this time she wasn't just an agent making a new set of supplier contacts. She was also one of 17 GTM Ambassadors in attendance.
Eduardo Cartaya and Sean Simmons of G Adventures and Shari Kavalin of Elegant Escapes Travel kicked off their appointment with a selfie. Photo Credit: Creative Focus Photography
The ambassador program, which began at last year's conference and is also now in effect at the sister GTM West show held by Travel Weekly and TravelAge West in Tucson, Ariz., each spring, is a byproduct of one of the show's distinct features. In order to keep the conference's networking opportunities fresh, GTM organizers don't typically allow agents to attend in consecutive years. Organizers also seek a 40% turnover in suppliers each year. As a result, attendees find themselves meeting an almost fresh set of contacts from year to year.
There are a couple exceptions to the rule on repeat trips for agents, however. Those who are selected as a GTM Ambassador get to return. The smaller nine-member group that makes up the GTM Advisory Board also gets to attend the show in consecutive years. Six of those advisory board members were at the Diplomat here for the event last week, said Jacqueline Hurst, who directs recruitment for GTM.
"Ninety percent of agents ask if they can come back, but only 20% can," she said. In explaining how ambassadors are chosen, she said, "They have to prove that they engaged with and did business with the suppliers they met the previous year."
Tracy Edwards of Collette and Ron Fenska of Fathom with entertainers at the welcome reception. Photo Credit: Creative Focus Photography
Hurst said that those who are selected to be ambassadors are asked to send at least three agent referrals prior to the start of GTM. They're also asked to suggest suppliers. In addition to those duties, ambassadors provide advice to first-time attendees both during the conference and ahead of time on the agent-only GTM Facebook page.
For those on the advisory board, which GTM inaugurated just this year, responsibilities also include meetings with GTM organizers to provide advice about improving the show and feedback on proposed changes. Advisory board appointments last for two years.
Hurst said both the ambassador and advisory board programs are creating a positive feedback cycle for GTM, in which agents who believe in the value of the conference not only get to return but are engaged in bringing standout colleagues into the program. That's especially important since GTM aspires to fill 70% of its show via referrals.
"They're able to reach agents that we might not be able to reach," Hurst said. "Hearing from your peers is always going to be more powerful than hearing from event organizers."
During a boardroom breakout session, Peggy McNeil of Seabourn speaks with travel agent attendees. Photo Credit: Creative Focus Photography
Suzy Gustafson of SG Travel Two in the Salt Lake City area said that taking on the role of ambassador this year was worth it.
Last year Gustafson attended GTM West, where she made fruitful connections with vendors such as Delta Vacations and G Adventures. She said the show was directly responsible for increasing her business by a third.
As a result, Gustafson wanted to try GTM in Fort Lauderdale, as well.
"I felt I could get so much out of this," she said from the conference floor last week.
Helton, too, has enjoyed her experience as a GTM Ambassador.
"If they'll let me come back, I'll be there in a heartbeat," she said of next year's event.