From destination weddings and family reunions to golf groups and girls getaways, group business is big business. “From a financial standpoint, group business is lucrative,” says Alyse Cori, a travel advisor at Travelwize, based in Sonoma, California. “Once you get the group established, it’s not just the one commission, but a commission on each of the individuals in the group.”
In addition to that immediate bump in commission, Mike Ehlers, director of groups for The Mark Travel Corporation, adds that group business is a “customer multiplier.” He explains, “The one customer whom you originally connected with has brought you a whole new book of business—you now have a number of new customers to work with moving forward. It’s a very efficient way to grow overall customer business.”
While group business can be lucrative, the diverse range of possibilities can be a challenge as agents start to target groups. And as with many travel agent specialties, the first occasion might occur by chance—but it’s the savvy agent who takes the opportunity and runs with it.
Two days after Carla Koller started a new position as a travel consultant with Travel Place Potomac, in Maryland, a woman came into the office and told her she wanted to plan a Jewish history group tour to Italy. Twelve years later, Koller continues to plan the logistics for Jewish-history group tours with the woman to such diverse locales as Lithuania, Poland, Morocco, Sicily and more. “We built a website just for these trips. We market to previous participants; sometimes we advertise; we connect with synagogues and other groups where we’re likely to find interested participants,” says Koller. “And word of mouth from previous participants is huge.”
“We always encourage agents to be active and create their own groups,” says Ehlers. “Agents who are most successful in group business are proactive in their approach and creating those opportunities.” Consider:
Expand current business profiles: Who are you currently selling to? What groups might they be affiliated with? What other needs might they have? For example, a destination wedding group might be interested in a bachelor or bachelorette party weekend trip; a family vacation one year can spark a family reunion or extended multigen vacation next year; a casual remark about a hobby or interest from one client can lead to an in with an affinity group—perhaps a knitting circle or book club, a golf group or church affiliates, a dining meetup or a group of friends who enjoy spas. “I look at everything as an opportunity,” says Cori. “You might get a hundred no’s for every yes, but you can’t be afraid to ask again. If one thing doesn’t work, try a different angle.”
Leverage personal interests: Where do you go in the course of your day? Who do you meet with regularly? There is potential for creating a travel group based on similar interests, whether that comes from other gym members, a children’s reading group at the library, a hiking club, a wine tasting group, a Chamber of Commerce event, snorkeling class and so on.
“I don’t start selling to people right away,” says Cori. “I build the relationship and the trust, talk to people. It’s not always about selling.” Still, she’s always on the lookout for the right opportunity. “When the time is right, I might suggest to a hiking group that it could be fun to hike in a new destination, or that a dining club could explore a region together.”
Build a strategy: Does your location, existing contacts, personal interests or previous experience already naturally translate to opportunities to target groups? These are the areas to focus on and promote across all channels, from supplier trainings to social media postings to featured specialties if you’re part of a network or consortium. Cori, for example, lives in California Wine Country, making wine groups a natural for her along with active groups of all kinds, while Koller continues to build on the success of her Jewish history tours.
The initial interest for group travel can come from any member of the group, and Ehlers recommends connecting with one person to function “as the Pied Piper. If you get one person who’s committed to the idea, they can help you both pitch the idea and generate interest once the plan is formed,” he says.
To sweeten the pot, Cori encourages the group leader to help build the group with the incentive that if enough people sign up, he or she might be able to earn a complimentary room (many suppliers offer free rooms or other perks once a certain number of bookings are reached). “I set the scene so they can see themselves on site,” she says. “This inspires the leader and helps them build excitement with other possible participants.”
Additional ways to create inspiration and build the group include:
• Social media: Photos, itineraries and updates all help potential travelers envision themselves on the trip
• Attend group events: From casual conversations to an official presentation, the travel agent’s enthusiasm and expertise helps build excitement
• Cross-promote with affiliated suppliers: Look for other groups and leaders with natural tie-ins to the group—perhaps a country club to help build excitement for a golf group, a book store to connect with a literary or cultural tour, a restaurant to promote a culinary tour and so on.