The best travel agents know they must keep the selling process fresh. Here's how they do it. Part 2 of a 3-part "Travel Agents Rock" series.

Sales are the lifeblood of any business. And in the fast-paced and decidedly diverse travel industry, successful strategies for closing the deal can vary widely.

The most successful agencies share a similar approach to strategizing their sales, but tailor it to fit their needs, according to Adolfo Perez, vice president of sales and trade marketing at Carnival Cruise Line. “When I think about some of our strongest agencies, almost all have a sales strategy, and all are quite individual and unique,” he explains. “Most of these agencies have developed their sales strategy by developing core expertise in certain areas—customer service, technology, marketing, business development, etc.—over time, and then refining their expertise to really become experts in certain aspects that help define that sales strategy.”

Are you maximizing your potential profits? Take a look at these sales strategies for insights and tips into how to rock your own sales.

Develop New Tools and Tactics

For Connie Corbett, president of Ambassador Travel in Evansville, Indiana, keeping an eye on new sales channels is crucial. “In recent years, the various options to capture our audiences' attention has grown,” she says. “Social media and other advanced marketing techniques allow us to target promotions and advertising campaigns to the audience most interested in the information.”

Perez adds that social media allows for more subtle forms of sales as well. “Agents are able to quickly share not only information but experiences,” he says. “A video, an image, a past guest comment—those things shared on social media can transform a client’s readiness to buy.”

Tracy Burnett, senior director of travel services at Indianapolis-based Bluegreen Vacations, has also found new ways to boost sales. “The most effective sales technique we’ve done is webinar marketing,” she says. “The webinars are just unbelievable. We did our first one last year. I put together a lot of customized group trips, and we invite a subject matter expert from the vendor to come on and help us talk about the trips—give us the real intelligence, on either the location or what that trip is going to provide.”

Burnett says this tactic works especially well with her agency’s client base, since Bluegreen Vacations—a full-service agency division of the eponymous timeshare company—serves a far-flung clientele around the nation.

“Last year when we did the first webinar, we had over $450,000 in cruise sales,” she says. “When you have someone with passion and with a lot of photos presenting—and you have someone in the background answering questions—it generates excitement. It’s a combination of the passion and the visual.”

Keep Your Audience in Mind

Bluegreen’s approach to webinars is a noteworthy example of how to maximize the use of sales channels, while still tailoring their use to reach specific types of potential clients. The company’s management, for example, realizes that some potential clients might feel technologically intimidated by the idea of participating in a webinar. For those people, Burnett says that the company’s message is: “ ‘Don't worry about it, we’re going to send you an email. We record all the webinars and you can just click on the link.’ We also put a link to all our webinars on our website. So it’s very user-friendly.”

Corbett, too, says that generational differences may dictate which sales approach works best for any given situation. “We focus on our target audience more than the type of travel,” she says. “Selling a cruise or a beach vacation to honeymooners incorporates mostly the same approach. However, selling a cruise to a honeymooner and selling a cruise to a retired couple are handled a little differently.”

“Generations respond to the kinds of marketing and communications they are most comfortable with,” she adds. “Social media has become a significant form of communication and marketing. It is important to respond to inquiries and comments via social media as soon as possible. Our audience expects promptness, and will move on to other booking channels if not satisfied with responses.”

Matt Cervone, president of Just Cruises & Vacations in Clinton Township, Michigan, agrees. “We have certainly adapted our approach with millennials versus boomers versus senior citizens,” he says. “We hired a social media and digital marketing manager last year to be sure we were communicating effectively with each and adapting our messaging accordingly.”

Give Them What They Want

Cervone says his agency pumps up sales by focusing on client satisfaction and regularly demonstrating to customers how important they are. “We hold multiple events per year—many destination and supplier-based events,” he says. “We hold an annual customer appreciation open house and holiday open house, with small, thoughtful gifts and lots of fun travel talk. People love it.”

On an individual basis, he says, “Our approach is to simply develop a rapport, make a friend, listen, ask questions, recap….” It’s that personal touch—developing the relationship and understanding the client’s true vacation goals—along with an agent’s knowledge and resources, that leads to the creation of customized vacation plans. Cervone adds: “I like it when we are able to create an experience…an upgraded accommodation or excursion that they had never thought of, nor would have been able to do through their own research.”

Know the Segments

Burnett reports that some types of travel sell better through specific contact methods than others. “Ninety-five percent of our cruise sales come from speaking to an agent,” she says. “For hotels, however, it’s probably more like 50/50, speaking with an agent versus booking electronically.”

In this case, the reasons why her agency’s clients tend to book cruises by phone are multifold, according to Burnett. “A lot of people have questions about cruises,” she explains. “They’re asking questions about destinations, and especially this year with the hurricanes, they want to know how destinations were affected. A lot of questions are coming in about shore excursions, too. For people making an investment in a cruise, they want to be sure they’re making the right choice.”

Such knowledge can help direct where an agency and agents should focus their resources, as well as training efforts. Understanding that a topic is hot can lead to attending webinar training sessions, cheat sheets to be distributed to all agents with answers to common questions, email blasts to clients who have expressed interest in a particular kind of travel and so on.

Specialize, When Appropriate

Understanding your mix of clients—both current clients and potential new clients—also helps determine if there’s a need for additional specialization. “Specializing helps an agent to increase sales,” says Corbett. “Focusing on a product and becoming a trusted expert in that product lets an agent become more efficient and confident in that product. Also, as an agent becomes known as an expert in a particular travel product, they will gain repeat and referral business for that product. Sharing this expertise and spreading the word can attract even more inquiries and leads.”

Still, Cervone recommends not being too limited by specialization. “Many clients today want to see more of the world,” he explains. “After you spend quality time and effort creating that relationship, if you want to keep the client, you may need to offer more destinations or experiences. I encourage new agents to start with their passion, then expand their specialties over time.”

Sell Up and Sell More

Encouraging customers to upgrade and buy more services is an obvious way to build sales and profits. But throwing in every possible option can backfire. Today’s savvy clients can differentiate between a truly personalized recommendation and one that is just designed to increase commissions.

“We always tell our agents ‘Don’t shop from your own pocketbook,’ and ask clients a lot of ‘discovery questions,’ so that you’re matching the client with the right product,” says Burnett. “Think of it as a door-to-door experience. Don’t leave anything out. Suggest transfers from their home to the airport. If it’s a situation with a cruise, you can say ‘Let’s book some of the specialty dining, so you don’t get shut out.’ We encourage them to establish a relationship with the client to get to know them more and help them look for more.”  

Cervone says that clients in general are amenable to recommendations about additional products and services. “Most people appreciate common-sense suggestions to improve their experience,” he says. “They need to hear the upgrade to a suite is only $X more—or a suggestion to do a longer pre- or post-trip—from their travel agent, not from an online forum or from the mailman.”

Manage the Sale

The sale doesn’t end once the papers are signed. Corbett notes that keeping tabs on a sale—and communicating at a range of touchpoints along the way—can lead to more sales in the future.

“Once a transaction has occurred, utilizing a strong database and calendar system is important in managing the sale along the way,” she explains. “Sending tidbits of information to the travelers to elevate their enthusiasm, along with managing final payments and schedule changes, are important details.”

Communication after the trip is completed is also key for cementing the relationship. “It is important to follow up with customers when they return to further nurture the agent/customer relationship. The welcome home follow-up is an opportunity to ask for referrals and inquire about the next trip they want to plan,” says Corbett.

Cervone notes that a personalized follow-up can often produce another booking rather quickly. “Block out the time to call them let them share their trip with you,” he advises. “Do not rely solely on automation to do this for you. Their relationship is with a person, not an email. Tactfully ask them when they are ready to go again. You will be surprised at how many people know, and are willing to let you start planning their next trip.”

Track and Adjust

Burnett says that Bluegreen tracks sales closely, and alters its strategy to reflect current conditions. “We do daily tracking and we have a budget to meet every month,” she explains. “The big picture, as time goes on in the year, is that we have override agreements. I’m constantly monitoring where we are on that. Maybe we need to have a promotion to drive sales to a particular vendor, so we’ll put out an incentive to the agents. We’re pretty much constantly putting our finger on the pulse, and we’re always tweaking what we’re selling.”

Corbett concurs about the importance of monitoring sales, both to head off potential problems and to maximize successes. “Processes cannot be improved unless there is a baseline starting point and awareness of successes and/or failures along the way,” she says. “Track success by reviewing marketing and ad campaign analytics and agency databases. Where we find success, we look to refine our process to increase the rate of success. Where we find failure, or less than acceptable success, we look to modify our processes to increase our results. We might modify our target audience or we might modify our internal communication processes.”

Cervone puts it succinctly. “Clarity creates confidence,” he says. “It’s imperative that agents understand their personal and business goals and stay organized, so they can stay in control of their business.”

Remember the Human Factor

When all is said and done, selling travel “is a relationship business, from the vendor to the agency and from the agency to the clients,” Burnett says. “I’ve always been reluctant about giving our agents rules that they must follow. I always give them suggestions, but they’ve got to own it.”

Cervone agrees that selling doesn’t work as well if you forget the human aspect. “I believe social media and new technology can enhance our relationships but not replace our relationships,” he says. “We are the travel industry, and it should not be difficult to make friends and ‘talk travel.’ ”

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