Thought LeadershipSponsored by ALG Vacations™

Time to Start Booking Travel Again?

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Tools and tips to determine if your travelers are ready to start booking—and how to stay top of mind to help guide their decisions. 

As the world grows accustomed to the hygiene protocols and other particulars of travel’s “new normal,” more people are considering the idea of taking a much-needed vacation. Travel advisors, meanwhile, are adjusting business strategies to keep their finger on the pulse of clients’ comfort levels and desires, to be ready to sell in a rapidly evolving marketplace. 

The sales opportunities are out there, to be sure. More people are willing to travel now than just a few months ago, according to a fall 2020 Virtuoso travel survey, which revealed that 100 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds and more than 50 percent of those 41 years and older are ready to hit the road. An impressive 66 percent of survey respondents are willing to fly (though they want the middle seat open) and 59 percent are willing to take an international flight, with Mexico and the Caribbean among their top choices. 

In contrast, other studies have described a more cautious outlook among some travelers. A recent AAA Travel survey, for example, found that 67 percent of respondents say they are uncertain about whether to take a vacation, and the booking site Travelocity reports that 57 percent of respondents to its most recent survey won’t travel for the holidays this year. 

In short, travelers’ desires and plans are challenging to predict right now. So how can advisors take advantage of increased interest while also making the most of downtime when sales are slow? 

Rethinking the Business Model
With any challenge comes opportunity, and the Covid-19 pandemic is no exception. 

Months of slow sales allowed Heather Di Pietro, owner and CEO at TravelSalesGroup in Charlotte, North Carolina, to rethink her company’s business practices. “I sat down and reevaluated almost everything, because we had the time to do it,” she says. “I actually got certified as a CTA, which I’d been wanting to do forever but didn’t have the time. And now I’m going for my CTC. We’re also having a new website built.”

Di Pietro has also used this time to revise her agency’s fees. “We’ve changed the deposit structure so when people come to us who are what we call ‘tire kickers,’ we now charge a deposit,” she explains. “We’ve also bumped up our strategies with our CRM [customer relationship management]. I’ve automated all of those emails because we know that as soon as the EU opens, as soon as the testing is gone, as soon as Hawaii is fully open, it’s going to be even busier—and that automation will allow us to do things more quickly and efficiently.”

Travis Paquin, owner of 417 Travel in Springfield, Missouri, also changed his agency’s approach to address the realities of the pandemic. “We moved to a ‘safe travel’ message and have streamlined all of our marketing efforts to Mexico and the Caribbean,” he says. “We’ve also had to adopt and invest in protocols for our storefront to provide a safe environment for our clients and employees.”

For most advisors, cancellations and rebookings took a lot of time during the first months of the pandemic. Such was the case for Shana O’Mara, founder and co-owner of The Pixie Planner, an agency in Tempe, Arizona. “I will honestly say we haven’t had a lot of downtime,” she says. “As destinations were closing, we were busy making things right for our guests and planning ways to keep them engaged. The work wasn’t less, just different. That truly leaves us in a great spot to pivot back to booking trips. We are spending far less time changing and cancelling now, so that time is being used to promote and quote new trips. I think this mindset is the reason we have been able to not only survive but see growth amid all this—even if it’s not as much growth as we had planned in January.”

Indeed, as travel picks up again, successful agencies are staying in touch with clients to continuously gauge their interest in travel, according to Di Pietro. “We’re friends with half our clients on social media, so when I post things and get responses, that helps,” she says. “We also reach out via newsletters and check response times and how many ‘opens’ we get, as well as how many people open it multiple times. When I see that people are opening something, I know that they’re interested.”

Di Pietro adds that FAM trips are an ideal way for advisors to experience the new normal and educate clients. “Any travel advisor right now who wants to be confident in selling travel has to travel,” she says. “You’ve got to experience it yourself. I blasted my trip all over social media, talking about safety protocols and saying, ‘This is what they’re doing—if you feel safe traveling right now, I’m ready and available to book it for you.’ ”

Connecting with Clients and Partners
Social media is among the most powerful promotional tools today, as many advisors have already seen. 

“Facebook has been our most effective way to engage,” O’Mara says. “We have an amazing social media team that never stopped focusing on the future, even as travel started to shut down. We started with a #keepdreaming campaign, and shared travel deals for late 2020 and early 2021. Then, as more destinations have opened, we have shown clients what is available, including traveling to Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, and given them insights into what travel looks like right now. Live videos are another great tool here, so we can have open and honest conversations.”

Paquin praise the value of reliable partnerships with travel providers, especially those that offer useful tools for travel advisors. “We believe business is about relationships,” he says. “Our partnerships are what keeps us going through times like this. We’re all in this together—the same storm, just a different boat.”

Guiding Clients to the Right Experience
With many countries enforcing travel restrictions, the number of destinations open to travelers has decreased. So how do advisors satisfy a diverse clientele with a greatly reduced portfolio of possibilities? 

“It’s really important to qualify your clients and to know your clients,” says Di Pietro, who is currently selling mostly Mexico and some Caribbean destinations. Her current tactic is to either book temporarily off-limits destinations further in advance or find similar experiences in a destination that’s immediately accessible. 

“When I’m speaking to someone who normally would do a river cruise, I say, ‘We have two options: We can plan a river cruise for next summer or we can take those specific experiences and find something similar somewhere else,’ ” Di Pietro explains. 

O’Mara uses clever campaigns to direct clients toward new vacation options. “We love to focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t,” she says. “For instance, we might suggest Disney World if they were looking for a Disneyland trip. We also like to create flyers and advertisements around what is available. We just finished our #getpassportgoplaces campaign, where we shared tropical Mexican and Caribbean options that are open. Now, we have moved to our #travelaroundtheUSA campaign, where we are sharing what our clients can do domestically.”

Be Ready to Meet Demand
At this point, it’s obvious that pent-up demand is creating an uptick in business, with even more sure to come—and smart advisors are finding ways to capture those bookings. 

“People are dying to travel,” says Di Pietro, who notes that flexible cancellation policies are giving clients a greater sense of security in booking. “I’m working 10 to 12 hours a day. Even if they can’t go certain places now because the EU isn’t open yet, they understand that it will reopen.”

O’Mara encourages clients to travel by emphasizing the great value available. “Our team is focused on providing options and encouraging people to plan now, because we know rates will increase as more places open,” she explains. “We have a good-sized team who are ready to step in and take on more planning as the world opens up again. We have truly never stopped working. Just this last week, we saw a big increase in requests and were easily able to navigate it because we never shut down.”

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