There were a few questions that needed answers. Although our business has been blessed beyond our wildest imagination, I am just not able to sit back and tell myself "well, Turen, you've got this all figured out." There are always new challenges, new technologies and new ways to approach and deal with our clients.
And my space is getting a tad crowded as more and more travel consultants are realizing that profits are not measured by who has the largest number of transactions. The average of each transaction matters far more. That is why the $100 million agency could conceivably be producing less profit than the $10 million agency, depending on rents, number of employees, commissions and profit per sale.
The luxury space is starting to get crowded. Everyone wants in on private jets, private islands and privately curated experiences. Our industry has discovered that tiny niche of travelers to whom the cost of a vacation is largely irrelevant.
I've never much liked that niche or aspired to it. The uberwealthy are almost impossible to surprise or delight. Perfection is merely expected. I don't play in that sandbox.
Nor do I deal with mass-market travel products. They are not as profitable as I would like them to be, and to sell them, I would have to give up much of the time I enjoy talking with clients. I also have a very hard time recommending any product I would not use myself. There are lots of agencies that do it all and essentially cater to the mainstream American traveler, the vast majority of whom don't even own a passport.
That's fine. But that's not me. I love working with the soon-to-be or already retired, the folks who worked their entire lives with travel dreams they are now ready to see come true. Price is relevant, as is quality. But I have another requirement for any client I take on, one that you might think is a bit strange: I choose to deal primarily with intelligent, adult travel consumers.
Intelligence is important to me because I am going to have to challenge a great many of their assumptions. They have been taught that you can really determine the quality of a hotel by reading online reviews. They have been trained to actually believe that the best cruise lines are those with the largest advertising budgets. And they think that by booking directly with a supplier you get the best price.
They think they know the best strategies for booking air, and they think that escorted tours are for travel soldiers who enjoy marching in formation.
They come to me unaware that many, sometimes most, of the online reviews one reads are actually posted by marketing firms that get paid to generate positive buzz using hundreds, sometimes thousands, of in-house, pseudo email addresses.
I want to work with clients who are open to the idea that their assumptions, their training, much of what they have read and the advice of strangers online and friends who get their information from strangers online are often incorrect. They have to be intelligent enough to realize that the travel industry has been insulting their intelligence for as far back as they can remember.
I laugh at many of the travel ads. I share my laughter with my clients: "Look, you can do a luxury cruise for $699 this week." "Look, these guys are giving you free air." "Look, I can get you a free upgrade" (even though every major consortium member on the planet gets the same deal). "Do you really believe that the world's better hotels offer a few dozen prices on websites for the same room?"
Debunking commonly held travel beliefs can be challenging. You have to find some level of enjoyment explaining to clients how commissions and other industry unmentionables really work. But beyond the challenge of explaining how things really work, you have to have a plan. And, as I said at the beginning of this column, I always have questions. My love for this profession is centered on the knowledge that I will never master it, not even one tiny part of it. We can all always do things better. I will never be master of this universe I choose to inhabit.
So I decided to choose 25 intelligent clients who I knew would give me straight answers to three of my latest big-picture business questions. This is what I wanted to ask them:
• Should we begin to utilize social media as a way to enhance communications with our clients? (Our current position is to avoid all forms of social media because most it is both juvenile and reeks of desperation.)
• Should we hire more travel consultants so we can grow our client base? (This is not a given, since we work with a waiting list for clients, and we have unlisted numbers.)
• Should we take everything we do in terms of consumer travel education and privatize it in the form of a private membership model requiring an annual fee in the range of $500 to $1,000? (We currently require a lengthy application and minimal one-time fee for anyone who wishes to get on our waiting list.)
I composed a letter inviting these 25 clients to join a Business Advisory Group within our company. There would be no meetings required and no compensation. They would merely be asked to respond to some business questions a few times a year if they had the time. Everything could be done by email.
Within two weeks, 24 of the 25 said yes. I received 21 rather lengthy written responses to the three questions. It was like hiring a group of the very best-paid consultants to analyze our business and our small place in the industry.
Many of these clients were current or former CEOs. Many had launched their own service companies. Several were from the tech sector, and we had some high-profile financial people among the group. There were two arts and entertainment folks and some school teachers.
And, the results were rather shocking in that these clients, all from different backgrounds and different parts of the country, were virtually unanimous in their recommendations. This is how they felt about my three questions:• Social media:
Almost all said they did not use social media. A majority said they have either quit using it or only use it to communicate with immediate family. They did not wish to communicate with us in this way, and since we are not seeking new clients, they saw it as a waste of productive time. Not a single one thought it was a good idea. • Hiring travel agents:
Surprisingly, no one thought we should hire travel agents. The majority thought that, instead, we should focus on growing the numbers of our concierge team and adding to our tech team. Our clients seem to enjoy the fact that after discussing and booking their trip with one of our owners, they are placed in the hands of staff whose only goal is their complete satisfaction with the trip. Bottom line: They do not want us to populate our staff with "salespeople" as that would "dramatically change" the nature of what we do. This is particularly surprising because, if followed, it would place substantive limits on our future growth. But they are not interested in seeing us grow.• Private membership model:
Again, we found unexpected agreement on what we thought was a complicated concept. All but two of our respondents thought the private membership model could work extremely well, and more than half said that an annual fee between $500 and $1,000 per family would be "acceptable." Some said they would pay more and advised that we should consider a higher fee to become more of a "concierge" firm. But then there was this: Fully half the responses included a line to the effect that "we would gladly join and pay the annual fee, whatever it was, but we have friends we would want to refer who we think would have a real problem with this."
If you have not yet initiated an email advisory board, please consider it. You can never "hire" a better team of consultants than those who have known you and your business as both clients and observers.