Photo Credit: Illustration by Ellagrin/Shutterstock

Focus onSocial Media


By Kate RiceMay 27, 2015

Travel agents and agencies, be they multilocation companies or single-site businesses, millennials or boomers, are investing significant time and money resources into the various virtual marketing channels known collectively as social media.

Rather than closing sales, the primary goal with these channels is to build and maintain relationships and to present an agent's or agency's personality.

"I personally shy away from selling with social media," said Wendy Schwartz-Mix, director of operations for a Travel Leaders agency that has several locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Her agency works to provide a steady stream of engaging and fresh content, including encouraging clients to share their thank-yous on Facebook, showcasing the agency's expertise with destinations such as the Galapagos and using destination photos taken by agents on fam trips to incite trip envy.

Images and video rule. Agents report finding that search engines in general and Facebook in particular have tweaked algorithms to favor video.

Many agents are on Instagram, a natural for travel, because of the opportunity it provides for rich imagery.

In addition to that, "It's all about the hashtag," said Tracy Oliphant, co-owner of A Girl's Gotta Go in Cambridge, Mass. Hashtags help connect agents with people who like their photos and will follow them and connect them with more followers.

But Pinterest is the true up-and-comer, with more and more agents seeing it as a lead generator. There are three reasons for that: Women, who are the decision-makers for many family purchases, dominate on Pinterest; it's photocentric and thus perfect for travel; and, unlike other social media channels, it automatically sends viewers who click on a photo to the originator's website.

Social media marketing is time intensive and costs money. But, say agents who are successfully using it, ignore it at your peril, because it's where the customers are. What follows is best practices by agencies that recently shared with Travel Weekly their use of social media to market their businesses.

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Janelle Grissinger

Eighty percent of business for Janelle Grissinger, owner of Janelle & Co. Travel in Huntingdon, Pa., comes through Facebook. Her strategy, she said, is "just be me. I'm genuine. I really believe in what I'm doing." That's one reason she quickly surpassed her goal of booking 10 cabins for a group cruise and is now at 55 cabins.

Travel is in the Grissinger family's DNA. She and her husband, Jeff, take their family on as many as a half-dozen trips per year. That, combined with Grissinger's outgoing personality, meant that while she was still in nursing, her colleagues at J.C. Memorial Hospital turned to her for vacation advice because she was an experienced traveler with a reputation for getting the most bang for her buck.

Janelle Grissinger
Janelle Grissinger

Grissinger is a natural with people, and Facebook exponentially increases her ability to connect. She uses both her personal and business Facebook pages to promote travel, sometimes giving an early heads-up about trips on the personal page.

She's not afraid to show how excited she is about travel she's planning. For example, her entire family is hosting that group cruise aboard the Norwegian Escape, which means her kids will do things such as escort other kids on the cruise to the Splash Academy kids' club.

"My kids love the idea," she said.

She told her Facebook friends her children's participation would help ease the awkward feelings many other children go through when they contemplate joining groups of kids they don't know.

When Norwegian came out with a Wave season offer that she considered a "really good value," she didn't hesitate to spread the word: "I said to all of my people, 'I would love to have you come. I'm not trying to sell you something; this is a heck of a deal.'"

Her friends shared it with their friends.

Grissinger also uses Facebook for market research. When she floated the idea of an all-inclusive trip for her friends who don't do cruises, "60 people responded in two hours."

She uses it for business relationships, as well. Early on, she joined a Facebook group for Disney agents. But she became disenchanted with the snippy tone some of the more experienced agents took when responding to what they considered ignorant questions asked by less experienced agents.

She withdrew from that group and created another, Friendly Disney TAs. "We have one rule," she said. "'Be kind or be quiet.'" That was six months ago. It now has more than 1,000 members.

It was also on Facebook that she met the independent contractor she recently hired.

Grissinger doesn't limit herself to social media marketing. She bought out all the seats at a local theater for a showing of the new Disney movie, "Cinderella." She said the theater owner gave her a good deal, and her Disney rep helped cover some of the costs. She did a short presentation about the cruise but since most attendees were clients who already knew about the cruise, it was more of a thank-you. And it was also a fundraiser for a local family with a child with leukemia.

"I collected more money for her than it cost for the event and made a donation to a wonderful cause," she said. She admitted that she cried when the movie was over.

"The agency is my own Cinderella story," Grissinger said.

Josh Alexander

Lawyer-turned-travel-agent Josh Alexander of Protravel International in New York uses Instagram to tackle the problem that plagues so many agents: the need to stay top of mind with clients.

Alexander posts photos of his travels, which last month included a trip to South Africa. Before he leaves, he starts posting photos of some of the places he'll be staying, interacting with properties to pump up interest in his trip. The properties then will often like, comment or share his Instagram posts.

Josh Alexander
Josh Alexander

While he was in South Africa, staff back in his office were getting emails from his followers, with some saying that his photos had increased interest they have long had in going to Africa. His clients can see the types of destinations and properties he has experienced himself, and those clients then share his photos with friends. These referrals often generate new calls.

If he's not traveling himself, he looks for suppliers' photos that can get clients excited about their upcoming trips. When La Residence, a luxury hotel in South Africa's Franschhoek Valley, posted a photo of vineyards as viewed through one of its windows, Alexander tagged it for a client also on Instagram who was headed to South Africa, saying "This will be your view in less than a week." The client emailed him back, saying, "Thank you for doing that. I'm so excited!"

He encourages his clients to share their own photos on Instagram and to mention where they're staying.

Josh Alexander posted this Instagram photo of the Molori Safari Lodge in South Africa at sunset.
Josh Alexander posted this Instagram photo of the Molori Safari Lodge in South Africa at sunset. Photo Credit: Josh Alexander

He also uses Instagram to showcase his personal relationships with suppliers. For example, on a trip to Italy last year with his wife, Nicole, he had a photo taken of himself with the general manager of every hotel they stayed in.

At the same time, Alexander wants his clients to know more about him and that he is more than a traveling guy. He uses Instagram to show his followers other aspects of his life, such as his family. That means shots of him with his 5-month-old daughter.

Sometimes work and life overlap. He couldn't resist Instagramming an image of his daughter with a Four Seasons towel wrapped around her head, courtesy of the Four Seasons in Florence.

Alexander is a strong advocate for using hashtags because more and more people are using them. He finds Instagram a medium that initially attracted millennials but said that it has increasing appeal with people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. "Instagram is so visual," he said. "Everyone, because of technology, has a shorter attention span, and Instagram really taps into that. Instagram really grabs your attention right away."

Jennifer Doncsecz

As the president of VIP Vacations, a top destination wedding and honeymoon agency in Bethlehem, Pa., Jennifer Doncsecz credits her children for her early start in social media.

"I stalked them," she said, following them from MySpace to Facebook.

Jennifer Doncsecz
Jennifer Doncsecz

But she quickly grasped the implications for VIP Vacations. After posting a collection of photos she called "This is my office for today" on Facebook from a beach in Turks & Caicos, she came back home to book trips for customers who called her after seeing the posts.

VIP Vacations, which has won awards from the Knot, Travel Impressions, MLT Vacations, Sandals, Beaches and Karisma, now has close to 8,000 likes on Facebook.

And while Facebook remains an important platform for VIP Vacations, YouTube and Pinterest generate leads, and Twitter and Instagram help the agency stay top of mind with followers.

YouTube is the second-largest search engine in the world, processing some 3 billion searches each month, and VIP Vacations is capitalizing on that. One of the wedding videos on its website has drawn more than 150,000 views, and the number keeps going up.

It's not uncommon for Doncsecz to get a query from a bride who says, "I want a wedding just like this one," referring to a video embedded on VIP's website.

Doncsecz has set a goal of having VIP Vacations' client wedding videos from each of the agency's key resorts embedded on her website. That generates queries and hits, with the latter making the site more attractive to search engines.

Doncsecz marries her social media efforts to her overall business strategy. One of her niches is destination weddings for U.S. clients of South Asian and Indian descent, which means she's booking weddings with guests coming not just from the U.S. but from all over the world. She embeds YouTube videos from these weddings on her website and posts photos and videos on the agency's Pinterest page, as well, which in turn brings viewers back to her website.

She has a dual Facebook strategy, using both her personal page and business page. She never puts sales or special offers on her personal page, which is about her travels, entertaining moments in the office and bridal photos. VIP Vacations' business page is slightly more business oriented but not much; posts are about wedding photos past and present, tantalizing travel photos and thoughts and questions about the rewards and benefits of travel.

Doncsecz uses Twitter to attract people to the agency website. "The more hits you have, the more you rise to the top of Google," she said. Her agency's Instagram strategy is to post travel photos, some of weddings, others of beautiful spots around the world.

Fans and friends know her penchant for pink (VIP's offices are housed in a pink Victorian house) and will post photos of pink things on her Facebook page.

"It's about making a connection with our clients," she said. "That's the point of social media."

Ryan Ranahan

As the marketing manager for Atlas Travel in Milford, Mass., Ryan Ranahan posted a photo he took of the western Sahara Desert, which resulted in a lead for a combination Disney cruise and Animal Kingdom vacation.

He ran the photo on his personal Facebook page, which reminded a former colleague that Ranahan was still in the travel business. That instance, he said, shows the power of an image in prompting an action, even though the client didn't ask for a trip to Morocco.

Ryan Ranahan
Ryan Ranahan

Images, in particular, can resonate with travelers who have vacation thoughts running in the back of their minds and can push those thoughts top of mind. A customer might be thinking about a Disney trip but consider it too expensive, Ranahan said. But a photo of Shrek on a Royal Caribbean cruise featuring Dreamworks characters might prompt that same customer to consider a cruise that could be more affordable.

Ranahan uses technology to streamline the process for posting photos when he's on the road. His DSLR camera has built-in WiFi, so if he doesn't have access to the Internet, he can save the images to his iPhone.

"From there, I upload it to Facebook or Instagram," he said. And, because so many hotels have WiFi, he can usually upload photos within a day of taking them. Such in-the-moment posting seems to engage followers.

While Ranahan was in Morocco, his colleague Andrew Carriere, marketing and communications coordinator for Atlas, was back in the office, working on the photos to make them more engaging. "It can't be all just sales; you have to engage, to ask, 'Can you guess where this photo is taken?'" said Ranahan. "If you're only given them sales-driven offers, eventually they will hide [the posts from] the timeline."

Ryan Ranahan shooting photos astride a camel in the Sahara.
Ryan Ranahan shooting photos astride a camel in the Sahara.

Atlas Travel, which is 90% corporate and 10% leisure, employs different strategies for each side of its business.

On the corporate side, the focus is more on news and information, informing clients about airlines moving from one terminal at an airport to another, providing updates on airport security procedures and delivering information about events that are affecting travel. On the leisure side, the agency uses social media for customer retention and marketing as well as to promote special offers.

The company has a different voice for each channel. It uses LinkedIn for company news and information. Twitter is more about sharing news in real time. And Pinterest is a major lead generator, where posting photos from a fam trip typically drives viewers to the Atlas website, producing leads that agents can convert to sales.

"That seems to be one of our fastest-growing platforms," said Carriere. Ranahan believes that's because so many women, who are often the family decision-maker for vacation purchases, predominate on Pinterest.

Jill LaBarre

Jill's Great Escapes in Orlando has doubled its sales every year its been in business and is on track to become a million-dollar agency in its third year of business. Its owner, Jill LaBarre, credits social media for being the marketing channel that is putting it there.

Jill LaBarre of Jill’s Great Escapes posted this photo of her with her husband, Patrick, and a teppanyaki chef on Facebook.
Jill LaBarre of Jill’s Great Escapes posted this photo of her with her husband, Patrick, and a teppanyaki chef on Facebook.

"By far, my best contacts have been through my presence on Facebook," LaBarre said. But it takes work and staying on top of developments not just on Facebook but on other social media channels as well. Pinterest, for example, originally a resource to show customers what a ship, resort or destination looked like, has evolved into a lead generator.

She pays to boost her Facebook posts to ensure that her fans see them, but now such pay-to-play tactics mean a mere 1% of her friends might see her promoted posts, compared with 14% in the past. But her vigilant monitoring of Facebook analytics suggests to her that Facebook algorithms have become more generous with multimedia over the past three months, so she's focusing on posting more videos.

Social media marketing is time consuming, and LaBarre doesn't hesitate to beef up her content with the tools provided by her host agency, Oasis, and Signature Travel Group, to which Oasis belongs, as well as from savvy suppliers who are staying on top of what works in this arena. Signature provides photos and videos that are easy to share on social media as well as a quarterly contest with a grand prize of an exotic trip that she uses in her social media marketing.

LaBarre praised Norwegian Cruise Line for providing photos and banner ads and Celebrity Cruises for providing videos. 

Jill’s Great Escapes is on track to become a million-dollar agency in its third year of business.
Jill’s Great Escapes is on track to become a million-dollar agency in its third year of business.

LaBarre has also found success with Facebook groups. She was one of the founding members of a members-only Facebook group for Norwegian loyalists. Being the official travel professional in that group has generated a "tremendous amount" of business, she said.

Conversely, she pays Facebook to create events for her group bookings, then invites other potential clients to that group.

She watches her analytics page like a hawk. "I know how many people have seen [the Facebook page] and liked it," she said. She can link her website to her Facebook page and see how many people visit her website.

The bottom line is that she's adamant about the importance of using social media. "If you are not engaging your current clients or attracting new clients on social media, you are missing an important component of marketing your business in today's world," she said. "It's no longer an option. You have to schedule time daily to post or learn something new about marketing via social media, because it continues to evolve."