Booking groups, and the hefty commissions that come with them, is as easy as one, two…five rooms…
The group market can be lucrative and is a great opportunity for travel agents ready to increase their business. Agents currently selling groups agree that with the help of technology and tour operator partners, it literally can be as easy as booking an FIT—but with the bonus of a commission that multiplies by the amount of the group size.
James Berglie, owner of Be All Inclusive - A JCo Travel Company based in Fallston, Maryland, sums up his reason for selling groups—which make up 90 percent of his business—very succinctly: “Quite honestly, I’m following the money!”
He continues: “For us, groups have the highest margins, as we only need to sell one person, the group leader—and then every other booking comes along with them. Compared to FITs, the time spent with each sale yields a much higher margin.”
Loving Group Business
Beyond the profitability of groups, Berglie, who specializes in destination weddings, loves selling them “because of the relationships we build with our clients,” but stresses that there is a lot that goes with the planning. “We are there to guide them every step of the way, and they trust us with their wedding day,” he says. “Their guests will forever remember their wedding, not only for how the actual wedding was, but how their entire experience was, so the amount of trust and responsibility that comes with handling a wedding is immense.”
Other groups Berglie has handled have been vow renewals, milestone birthday celebrations, family reunions and small company trips.
Kim Cook, owner and wedding specialist for Love to Travel in Overland Park, Kansas, agrees that booking groups is profitable. She also understands that groups may be overwhelming for some agents—but it doesn’t have to be that way. “It’s one of those things you just have to do,” she says. “Once the group is set up, it’s just like a regular booking. Book a group and see how easy it is—and how much more lucrative groups are than a single booking.”
Cook’s groups, which are mostly destination weddings, make up 50 percent of her business. With destination weddings, she says she can book 10 to 30 guest rooms as compared to one honeymoon room. “Once the resort is decided on for a destination wedding, everyone books the same resort and you don’t have to go through discovery. It’s profitable because we don’t have consultations with each guest—they already know where they are going to go. We just need to do air and how many nights they are staying. It’s really easy to work with each guest.”
Mike Ehlers, senior director of groups for Funjet Vacations, says destination weddings continue to be a huge segment of the groups market, but that the company is “seeing a pick up in many other areas as well, including friends and family groups, meeting and incentive groups, and activity-based groups, such as wellness, golf, yoga, etc.”
He suggests that agents look for groups where they have a natural affinity. “Organizations they are part of, hobbies or schools often can lead to group opportunities, as well as repeat group opportunities,” he says. “With these types of groups, the agent already has existing relationships and has built up some trust with the potential group passengers.”
While the ins and outs of group travel depend on the specifics of the kind of group, most group bookings follow a similar path. Typically the travel agent starts off working with one representative from the group, or in the case of weddings, the couple. These point people make the final decisions on the resort choice, as well as transportation options, special events and so on.
From there, Claire Robinson, owner/travel consultant of Claire Skies Travel in Burtonsville, Maryland, creates a dedicated group webpage for each of her destination wedding groups. It includes rates for 3 to 10 nights, photos of the resort, included amenities and activities, required documents for travel, contacts for the embassy of the destination, and, most importantly, the contact information for the agency. On this same webpage, guests submit their bookings along with their deposits.
“This system reduces the number of questions the couple receives as 98 percent of the information has been provided and is accessible at their guests' leisure,” says Robinson.
Cook uses a similar approach with weddings, as well as with smaller groups booking celebration travel, such as 40th and 50th birthdays, or special anniversaries. For example, in the case of a wedding, Cook assigns the group to one of her two dedicated wedding concierges, who create a wedding website, which includes photos of the bride and groom and information on the resort. A form on the site helps the agents build a package, as it includes information on air, how many nights they plan to stay, and whether there are kids traveling.
Her agency is also just getting started with special interests and wellness groups. With this type of group travel, the agency conceives the idea first and then finds individuals to sell into the trip. For example, Cook is now planning a dedicated wellness week; she has already chosen a resort with a spa and fitness programs, and is bringing local trainers as part of the group experience to conduct their own classes. She’s promoting the week through social media as well as marketing to the clients of the local trainers.
Regardless of the type of group, Ehlers stresses the importance of communicating with groups during the entire process. He suggests sending out communications that can include insider tips or unique places to check out at the hotel or destination, information on excursions, and as the trip approaches, weather reports for the days the group will be in the destination and reminders on how to find transfers upon arrival.
“If you just sit back and take the bookings, but don’t do anything else to engage the guests, it’s likely you aren’t going to win them over,” says Ehlers. “Come up with a plan to engage the group along the way. Be creative and be true to the personality of your agency. Provide first-hand knowledge and do it with every group. When one group continues to lead to future groups, you will see it is worth the extra time and effort.”
Using Technology to Book Groups
Group booking technology and working with a tour operator to plan and organize the booking is key to success, say agents. “Our tour operator partners are fantastic,” says Berglie. “They help with organization and providing the technology, as well as helping manage inventory, assist with changes, renegotiate rates, help with exceptions (such as a 17-year-old brother of the bride at an adults-only property), and help with requests.”
Group booking technology through a tour operator partner helps Cook hold all group space, making it easy to add and keep track of reservations, make changes and add insurance. It also makes it simple to send quotes to clients. “We don’t have to create something that’s already built,” she says. “We just click and send an email with pricing and it’s a great way to do it.”
Alyssa Dial, brand manager and lead romance expert for LovinAway, Luxury Romance Brand of LaMacchia Travel, a national brand based in Kenosha, Wisconsin., says: “Technology is one of our biggest assets when it comes to groups. Couples expect instantaneous results. We are able to export inventory and update a couple with their guest list within minutes. This allows the couple to provide their rooming list quickly to their onsite wedding coordinator to finalize wedding details.”
Robinson agrees with the need for quick turnarounds. “Most important is responsiveness,” she says. “If there is a lapse in time then it is a reflection on the agency from the client’s perspective. The tour operator relationship can make us look like rock stars from a quote request through all stages of contracting to preparing the group dashboard to being ready to accepting bookings.”
Groups Keep Giving
When it comes to new group business, opportunities abound. Cook uses Facebook ads to target different markets, such as destination weddings, golf or wellness, and also uses Instagram as a marketing tool.
Berglie also uses social media, mainly Instagram and Facebook, as well as Google AdWords to market his business, but most of his clients today come by way of word of mouth. “When we do one destination wedding group, we touch usually 30 to 60 people who have a great experience and recommend us to anyone they know thinking of having a destination wedding,” he says.
And don’t underestimate the value of face-to-face encounters for making a group sale. Bridal shows are where Robinson finds many of her destination wedding groups. “After each bridal show, the priority for immediate follow-up is with couples who have expressed a sincere interest in doing a destination wedding,” says Robinson. “Immediately after the show, communication is initiated to schedule a phone consultation with the couple. Next an in-person meeting is scheduled for couples who are local to the agency, as this provides an opportunity to interact face to face, share my travel background and years of experience, and provide credibility for my business.”
While agents who are successful with groups use a mix of online and in-person marketing methods, there’s nothing more powerful than the potential referrals and repeat business that come from organizing a top-notch group experience.
“One of the biggest benefits in selling groups is the customer multiplier that occurs with group bookings,” says Funjet’s Ehlers. “If one of your existing customers brings you a group, that one customer then turns into an entire group of customers you can engage with and provide services for moving forward.”
To help propel groups into a catalyst for individual bookings, Berglie sends thank you cards to all guests, and asks them to keep his agency in mind for their future travels. Dial stresses that “clients are never viewed as a one-and-done transaction. Each client is an opportunity to build a relationship and grow our brand. LovinAway strives to provide an impeccable first time experience, so when a client is considering future travel, they come to us first.”
And you never know when a group attendee will transform into a group organizer: Cook is now working with a client who has been to two destination weddings organized by Cook’s team—and is now planning her own destination wedding with them.