Manage your time better to achieve more, focus on what counts most and increase profits. Part 3 of a 3-part "Travel Agents Rock" series.

If there’s one thing that everyone could use more of, it’s time. That’s especially true for travel agents, who juggle a variety of often-pressing issues on a daily basis.

“Travel agents are pulled in so many directions all day, so time management is a must,” says Mike Julius, Vice President Field Sales North America at Carnival Cruise Line. “It would be impossible to make a booking, let alone return a phone call, without it.”

Julius shares some of his own advice about how to construct a productive day in the travel industry. “I think using blocks and buckets works well,” he says. “Block out time for specific tasks and bucket items into categories. From there, you can decide what needs immediate attention, what can be delegated and what can wait for later.”

While the principles of time management remain the same across the board, the most successful travel agents have come up with their own tricks of the trade for making the most of their time-pressed work schedules. And while our days may still be limited to just 24 hours, these insider tips just might make it seem like there’s been an extra hour or two squeezed in.

Start the Day Right

For Anita Pagliasso, founder and president of Ticket to Travel in San Jose, California, the ideal day starts with a basic yet effective task. “Typically, I create a to-do list,” she says. “That sometimes goes out the window, but I try to divide it into three categories: most urgent, priority and a ‘get-to’ file that I get to as time allows.”

Starting with a meeting helps lay out the day’s priorities for Lea Nielsen, vice president of corporate development at Cruise Direct/International Voyager in Morristown, New Jersey. “Starting our day with a morning huddle forces me to address, first to myself and second to my team, how my day will be spent and what my priorities are,” she explains. “Reviewing the previous day’s activity and revenue reports is always first on my list, followed by vendor updates and communications.”

Early-morning evaluation is also important for Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing at Travel Planners International, a Maitland, Florida-based marketing and support agency for travel professionals. “Even though I am on the creative side of the business—sales and marketing—I look to the numbers to evaluate the effectiveness of what we’ve created,” she says, adding that this includes “any report that shows me data: phone calls made, active agents, productivity with a specific supplier, trend reports, etc. I have found, through my business consulting days, that most small business owners lose sight of their data. They tend to see it after the fact, at the end of the month or quarter, and find themselves in reactive mode, trying to make up for the gap. Evaluate your numbers daily and you won’t fall into that trap.”

Avoid Distractions

Emails and impromptu meetings throughout the day, while often important, can prove a roadblock to achieving other goals. The ideal isn’t to eliminate these important communications, but to manage them better so they help you achieve your goals rather than distract from them.

Lee found a creative solution that helps her manage both of these potential time drains better—a tabletop, stand-up desk. “I find that when an email comes in that I know will need several minutes or research to really answer, I wait until my set time where I am sitting,” she says. “All other emails, I am able to fire off answers quickly. And nothing keeps a meeting shorter than when everyone has to stand.”

Nielsen uses her company’s morning huddle to preempt problems and streamline the need for ongoing meetings throughout the day. “I find that outlining our day during huddle gives team members the opportunity to schedule time with me regarding pressing issues, rather than stopping by when I’m in the middle of something important,” she says.

For Pagliasso, the most common interruptions aren’t really a distraction, but rather something that should be planned for. “If there’s a client issue or an agent has an issue, that has to be handled directly and immediately,” she explains. “I don’t really call it a distraction, but just a necessary part of doing business. Clients and agents take priority.”

Master Your Communications

Email and other communications can create a significant drain on any workday. Lee follows her own time-tested guidelines for staying on top of the email vacuum. “I scan an incoming email quickly, and if I can answer it right then, I will,” she says. “When I know I need to focus on other work, I turn email off and focus. I tend to block off segments of time to tackle those emails that will require additional resources. Blocking off segments of no more than 20 minutes—no phone calls, just desk work—and then taking small, five- to ten-minute breaks in between, has helped me keep the email monster at bay.”

Nielsen finds that technology also helps to limit the negative effects of time-eating messages. “I get copied on correspondence between a lot of different parties, so folders, filters and rules are key, and nothing leaves my inbox until it has been actioned,” she says. “A good project-management application can cut down internal email significantly. We use Asana to manage all our internal projects and keep everyone on track.”

Pagliasso follows a relatively set schedule for her correspondence. “I check email at least three times a day,” she says. “A lot of it is done first thing in the morning, at midday and then in the evening. It’s sometimes easier to get to them in the evening, when things are quieter.”

Use Social Media Wisely

While social media has become a valuable marketing tool for travel agents, we all know how easy it is to get sucked into a social media vortex, with a few minutes here and there adding up to large chunks of time.

Lee takes a deliberate approach to social media, spending about 10 minutes every morning reading trade newsletters. “I make it a habit to always share at least one article, and include a probing question regarding it,” she says. “During one of my 10-minute breaks during the day, I’ll check for engagement and respond from there.”

But she also notes that, in today’s always-connected society, travel agents can’t escape the digital landscape. “I am on my phone all the time,” she says. “Sitting at long stop lights, during commercials on TV, waiting for my macaroni and cheese to heat up. I’m checking social media and commenting as I go. In today’s world, you must stay connected. It’s just part of the selling and servicing process now.”

Delegate Effectively

There’s an old saying: “No man is an island.” Neither is any travel agent. To succeed, we must learn to cooperate, and to delegate. That’s why Lee stresses the importance of assembling an ace staff. “Hire the best,” she advises. “Hire people who are just as obsessed as you. Curious people are always hungry to know and do more. Then once you do this, be direct with your corrective and directive communication. Be 1,000 percent open; share everything. Create a safe environment for them to make mistakes, but correct quickly with detailed feedback. Once you have done this, tell them to ‘pull the trigger,’ to go for it. But keep an eye on things from around the corner.”

Nielsen says that a team of employees with complementary skills makes the delegation process work best, both for effective time management and doing the job in the most strategic way. She also notes that delegation isn’t always top-down, but can be peer-to-peer.

“Sometimes, another team member is simply a better fit for the task,” she says. “About a year ago, I developed an internal company hub, which includes team member profiles that include the languages they speak, certifications they hold and their specialties. We have a multilingual staff supporting eight different languages, so team members can easily transfer calls and chats to team members who speak a guest’s native language, or they can search for other team members with specific certifications.”

Take Advantage of Supplier Tools

Preferred partners, host agencies and other suppliers can provide time-saving tools and resources that are specifically designed for travel agencies. But supervisors need to make sure that agents have access to the right tools and that agents are actually using the tools, according to Pagliasso.

“It’s important to pick the most beneficial relationships you have, the suppliers who really want to work with you, and then have your agents really learn how to utilize their tools,” she says. “One of the things that I do is make sure that all the agents are exposed to the tools, and then I give them exercises for them to show me they know how to use them.”

Know When to Step Away

Sometimes, temporarily setting aside a project or goal can help increase overall efficiency. Nielsen tracks her time to make sure she doesn’t get bogged down. “I typically only spend 60 minutes on a project before moving on to something else or taking a walk around the office,” she says. “If I have been working on reports, I will move to something more creative like website images, customer reviews or call center dashboards. I like to think of it like ‘muscle confusion,’ but for my brain.”

Pagliasso agrees about the value of stepping away. “There are many times when I get very creative and have all these wonderful ideas, and then I hit a brick wall,” she says. “I’ve learned that when I hit that brick wall, I’m not really finished, but I need to step away and get distracted. It may be something mindless. I like to get some fresh air and go for a walk. But I bring my cell phone with me, because if I have a good idea and I don’t have my cell phone to make a note, the idea can disappear.”

End the Day Better Than You Began It

Whether you successfully managed your day today or fell into any one of the many workday time traps, tomorrow always brings a fresh start and new opportunities to do better. And the most productive agents get a head start on a productive tomorrow by wrapping up today efficiently.

“I’m a stickler for ending the day, and most importantly the week, with my desk clean and all papers buttoned up,” says Lee. “A list of what’s next, or on tap for the following day/week helps me consolidate my thoughts. All emails are answered—even if it’s ‘I need to get back with you on this’ replies. Nothing is left undone.”

Nielsen ends the day by casting her eye toward upcoming goals. “I am a big list person,” she says. “Throughout the day, I cross off items as I work through them, and anything not crossed off at the end of the day gets added to tomorrow’s list or huddle.”

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