For many travel agents, being able to successfully market and sell to large affinity groups is the sales pinnacle.
To just as many, however, selling to large groups might seem unattainable. The idea of finding enough people with similar interests who want to travel together, then assembling that group, can seem to be an insurmountable task.
While most agents concede that selling to affinity groups is both time-consuming and hard work, they agree that if done right, it is very rewarding and lucrative.
So how do successful agents do it? Each has his or her own methods. Some have found a single, successful niche and stuck with it. Others evolve and expand their offerings.
What follows are some looks at agents or agencies that have managed to find success selling to groups -- to clients bound by interests in dance, politics, knitting, celebrities or, for one newcomer, marijuana -- and are willing to share some of their secrets to group-sales success.
Using social media to ID affinity groups by their shared interests
By Johanna Jainchill
Successful sellers of group travel seem to have at least a few traits in common, including being savvy marketers and very patient.
For an agent looking to enter the affinity marketing realm, Margie Jordan, the CEO of Jordan Executive Travel Service, said Facebook is an effective tool for targeting people based on their interests.
"Anything that somebody puts in a profile on Facebook is searchable," she said. "If someone loves 'Star Wars,' you can actually search and advertise to that person."
This would be useful to an agent looking to sell one of Disney Cruise Line's new Star Wars-themed cruises. But, as Jordan points out, just because someone likes "Star Wars" doesn't mean that person likes to cruise. Which is why the ads she creates do not simply offer itineraries and prices but something that will lure people to her website where they can explore other options, such as Star Wars experiences at the Disney parks.
"If I really want to sell Star Wars-themed trips, then I need to build a database of people who love 'Star Wars,'" she said. "So I'm probably going to start with Facebook."
Google Ads, she said, doesn't enable advertisers to target what people like, but they can aim at customers based on what they search, which Jordan said many travel agents find more attractive.
"If you're actually searching on Google for a Disney Star Wars cruise, you are probably thinking about taking one," she said.
Los Angeles-based Jason Coleman, an adjunct assistant professor of travel and hospitality at West Los Angeles College, also predominately sells to groups. He started by using a more basic approach to finding them: lunch.
His first move in building celebrity-hosted groups around fan clubs was to host a luncheon for celebrity publicists, surmising that they were more likely to understand the good exposure a fan cruise would afford than the celebrities themselves would.
From left, Mark Fleischer, the grandson of Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer; his wife, Susan Fleischer; Betty Boop; and Jason Coleman, who organized the Betty Boop Fan Cruise.
Coleman has had success arranging cruises for soap opera fans with the show's stars and even a series of Betty Boop fan cruises.
His advice: Look for pre-existing groups, preferably ones that already meet in some form, perhaps a daylong hotel event, from which a travel agent could take it to the next level.
Coleman said he looks for opportunities "where there are already groups of people who may be doing meetings or events or activities but on a smaller scale, where the group-travel thing isn't really much of a stretch. I find it much harder to build a group like that from scratch."
One of Coleman's early successes in the affinity realm was with doctors doing daylong continuing-education seminars, which he parlayed into weeklong cruises.
He learned from them to not always market to the most obvious target. Seeing that doctors are busy, and since Coleman was pitching the cruises as an opportunity to bring their families along, he shifted his marketing to the doctors' spouses and found "a whole new level of success."
For Coleman, no affinity is too narrow in focus. In fact, narrowness is a plus.
"What I like about special-interest and niche groups is finding a market or a specialty where I can make the niche as narrow as can be," he said. "That is the easiest space to target all my marketing. When it's big and broad, you're casting a wider net."
Coleman and Jordan are both quick to say that selling to groups is rewarding, but it's hard work.
"I spend an obscene amount of time in research and investigation and planning," Coleman said. "A hard thing for a traditional leisure agent is that it's mostly unpaid time and investment. The payoffs at the end are big, but there are big risks that come with it."
The biggest of those risks is that not all groups come to fruition. "You have to be prepared for that," Coleman said. "I can see where it can be intimidating from the start."
Jordan warned that even the most targeted marketing doesn't guarantee sales.
"It can be hit or miss," she said of Facebook ads. "You don't know if these people are ready to travel, thinking about travel or even interested in travel. All you really know is they like baseball. ... It takes some skill in crafting the right message and putting it out there."
Her advice: Play the long game. "Your goal isn't to immediately sell a [trip] tomorrow," Jordan said. "You can try that, and you might make a sale immediately. But if not, you have to think about that secondary goal of getting them into your database so you can continue to market to them."
A former hoofer taps her past to create cruises for dance studios
By Tom Stieghorst
A career as an elite, competitive gymnast and dancer might seem like an unlikely path for a second calling as a travel agent. But it seemed perfectly natural for Robin Smith, who has channeled her past experiences into taking dance groups to sea.
Smith has been mining that niche for more than two decades as the owner of Caladesi Travel, a Hendersonville, N.C., travel agency that also does business as Dancin' at Sea.
Susan’s Sensations, a dance troupe booked by Robin Smith’s Dancin’ at Sea, was on the Carnival Elation in 2015 and had an opportunity to perform on the ship.
Her business comes from dance studios across the U.S. and Canada, which are drawn to a program that offers dance students, generally teens, the chance to both take a cruise and also perform for their fellow passengers.
"All of their shows are open to all guests of the cruise ships," Smith said. "Generally, we have a minimum of 50% to 75% of the showroom filled for their shows."
Smith said she developed her niche as an outgrowth of her own past.
"In our industry, niche marketing can be important, and we chose to really concentrate on it years ago," said Smith, who booked 14 dance groups on ships last year, mostly with Carnival Cruise Line.
"We range from major repeat groups to newcomers," she said. "Our average [group] size is probably 80." One group she booked this year will comprise 190 passengers.
Smith said she doesn't handle many groups that large.
"Our success has been because we are hands-on and personal," she said.
Smith said the dance world is "both big and small." According to a 2015 market research report from IBIS World, there are 8,568 dance studios in the U.S., with the number of youth studios a subset of that.
"I've had some adults, but primarily [the groups] are teenagers who are traveling with their families," Smith said. Because she's been booking and escorting such groups since 1993, word of mouth is her strongest source of business: "Quite often I hear, 'I was speaking to so-and-so who went with you in the past.'"
She also avails herself of many of the marketing methods used by small-to-midsize agencies. Although reluctant for competitive reasons to get too detailed, she said she reaches her audience first through targeted print advertising.
"And like many companies, we have social media out there, too," Smith said. "Because of social media, I have cut back on print."
Smith said she doesn't attend many dance conferences, trade shows or competitions because they can be costly but uses the printed programs at such events as an advertising vehicle.
Once or twice a year, Smith will do an email marketing blast. But she's reluctant to cast too wide a net, since some genres of dance aren't suited for presentation to a cruise audience.
"We stick to the standard dance genres as well as ethnic dancing," she said. "It has to be appropriate for all audience viewing."
Smith strongly feels that her credibility is her No. 1 marketing asset. The escorts for her groups all have dance backgrounds. "We've all been in the dance world in the past, and we know what they're going through," she said, adding that the same principle applies to any travel agency trying to work a niche or assemble a theme cruise.
"If you were marketing to a Star Wars group, it would help if you were into 'Star Wars' as opposed to just being the meeting planner," Smith said. "It helps to know the market and its members pretty well."
It's also relevant that Smith has an especially close working relationship with one cruise line.
"My success has been in large part because of the partnership I've had with Carnival," Smith said. "The very first [dance] group was on the Fantasy, a three-night cruise." She added, "We still use the Fantasy," although she has graduated to primarily seven-day voyages.
Some of the dancers whom Smith has seen perform on cruise ship stages go on to dance professionally.
Smith said one dancer in a recent group she hosted auditioned with the cruise line and was hired to dance on a future cruise. "I've known her since she was 4 years old," she said.
Robin Smith’s Dancin’ at Sea booked dance troupe Rainbow Express on the Carnival Valor in 2015. The troupe also had an opportunity to perform on the ship.
Smith said that FIT business tends to sprout from group business.
"It has gone on to where some of these dancers have grown up, and now I'm doing their honeymoon," she said. "I have one, she has children, and we sent them to an all- inclusive resort with her children."
The main thing that differentiates her niche, Smith said, is the chance for performance while on the cruise.
"That is the purpose of it, to give them a professional exposure," Smith said. "So they're not just out there on a little stage or out on the street performing somewhere."
From LGBT bookings to pot tours, new niches explore social edges
By Michelle Baran
There are niche group-travel markets, and then there are really niche group-travel markets, the kind that have murky legal issues to contend with.
That's exactly the kind of group in which South Florida-based House of Travel has chosen to specialize.
"We are always looking for what's coming up in the future," said Ernesto Ruben, the head of social media and product development at House of Travel, which has been gradually building up its cannabis travel business by selling pot-friendly travel packages and tours to Colorado, predominantly to Denver. "The same way we decided we were going to get into the LGBT market for weddings and honeymoons once the law was passed, we took the same approach to marijuana."
In order to be able to advertise its cannabis-friendly tours on social media, House of Travel uses images such as this one with a caption that reads, “Flying high in the Rockies.”
The challenge, however, is that grassroots marketing, especially through social media, can be tricky. House of Travel has had to dance around the topic on one of its most popular marketing channels, Facebook, for fear of having its advertising account blocked.
"The only thing with this segment right now is that there is a lot of uncertainty ... there's a stigma," he said. "But on the other hand, there's a very big market for it."
So House of Travel has gotten creative.
"As the image can't include anything that could be banned, we used phrases like 'flying high in the Rockies' ... in the text and hashtags," Ruben said.
He added that even if the message is covert, the posts generate tons of traffic and are drawing a rapidly growing number of clients who are very interested in marijuana-focused itineraries.
For now, House of Travel is setting up clients with Denver-based tour operators and suppliers specializing in marijuana tourism that it has vetted. But the agency feels so strongly about the potential growth of this area that it has set up an employee in Denver to begin plotting the market. Ultimately, House of Travel desires to have greater control and oversight of the products it sells.
House of Travel sees an opportunity in making its cannabis tours more of a group travel business by leaning on one of its other specialties, destination bachelor and bachelorette parties.
In the same way that Las Vegas has become a hub for such parties, Ruben said he sees a marijuana-friendly destination like Denver being able to capitalize on that market, as well.
An image that House of Travel designed to promote a cannabis trade show in a partnership with High Times magazine to sell its pot-friendly packages.
Initial market research done by House of Travel indicates that interest in this type of product is very high.
Complexity is generally the best motivator for consumers to use an agent, and the fact that there are still a lot of questions and concerns about how and where marijuana can legally be consumed in Colorado helps House of Travel serve as a guide for clients to ensure that they have a worry-free, marijuana-friendly getaway.
House of Travel is getting the word out through social media, email blasts and relevant trade shows.
The company has had a lot of success with wedding-industry trade shows in promoting its LGBT business, for example, and is gearing up to have a presence at cannabis industry shows in the future.
The trade shows, Ruben said, "have proven to be very good starting points for us. And it's a great way to get very qualified leads for what we're selling."
Some of the products House of Travel sells include a cannabis cooking class for $129 per person for adults who want to learn to add marijuana to meals; a four-hour Dispensary & Grow Tour for $99 per person, which includes a tour of marijuana dispensaries and an industrial grow facility; and a sushi and joint roll dinner for $59 per person during which travelers learn how to roll joints and roll sushi while sampling wine.
When creating theme travel, find an affinity group and market to it
By Jamie Biesiada
Travel agents who excel at selling themed travel say that targeted marketing is the key. The targeting is worth the effort, they said, because agents who do it well stand to earn high commissions and create a new customer base more likely to book any future travels with them.
Among those who tout the advantages of themed products is Howard Moses, co-owner of the Cruise and Vacation Authority in Marietta, Ga. He started organizing themed cruises 20 years ago and also runs the website themecruisefinder.com, which aggregates the current offerings (more than 500 cruises are currently listed).
Moses looks to develop cruises around themes that already have a following, or a donor base, to reach out to. His biggest sellers are politically themed cruises aimed at conservatives or liberals. His most popular was a river cruise for the National Review, a conservative magazine and website, which sold out within an hour. Moses ended up running a second cruise back-to-back with the first.
"Honestly, the theme picks us," he said. "We don't go out and just sort of arbitrarily come up with a theme."
A good topic has an interesting theme, a following of people who will purchase spots on the cruise and a way to reach those people through marketing. While targeting the right people is a key, tactics can differ based on the theme but social media is always front and center.
An attendee of the Great Alaska Running Cruise, one of the themed trips offered by Howard Moses, the co-owner of the Cruise and Vacation Authority in Marietta, Ga.
For example, Moses said he ran a knitting cruise a few years ago. He found two women based in the U.K. who have a large following in the knitting community and got them to sign on, then promoted their presence. He also used their social media channels to promote the cruise.
"That trip did exceedingly well, and I was, of anybody, shocked," he said. "If you've done your work correctly, it sort of becomes, 'Build it, and they will come.'"
It all comes down to marketing to the appropriate population, which Moses called "the most critical component of a successful theme cruise. ... Fortunately, with the growth in the Internet and social media, getting the word out is considerably easier than it used to be."
Selling themed travel within an existing community is also a tactic employed by Aranzazu Lopez-Peterson, the owner of EHTravels in Miami.
She offers themed tours such as yoga in India, Oktoberfest in Germany and even a focus on medicine in China that she developed with a local Chinese doctor. She used connections like the doctor to reach out to others who may have similar interests.
She is attempting now to add wine and food tours to her offerings by connecting with individuals in those fields. For example, she is looking for a local wine bar to work with on a oenophile tour, tapping into the bar's frequent customers.
Lopez-Peterson doesn't focus solely on themed tours. Her other products are mainly cruises, a logical core product given her location in Miami. But she said themed tours are a differentiator for her.
"People are looking for different experiences," Lopez-Peterson said. Especially with the Internet, offering such group experiences enables her to be "a little more competitive" by offering something "that is going to be harder for someone to coordinate by themselves."
And there's an added bonus: Many of the people to whom she sells themed travel circle back to book their next trips.
While Lopez-Peterson's themed tours typically draw about a dozen participants, Moses is now organizing cruises with between 200 and 800 attendees.
In addition to targeted marketing, sometimes it's just good old-fashioned word of mouth that makes them really take off, Moses said, as is the case with his theme cruises for runners. "We joke that it's an overnight success that took 10 years," he said.
Another offering by Howard Moses 'company Cruise and Vacation Authority in Marietta, Ga., was the Caribbean Running Cruise in Haiti.
When Moses started offering these cruises, they typically drew 30 to 40 people. Today, they sell out with several hundred attendees, thanks to the running community.
A Caribbean cruise for runners, scheduled for February, is sold out at 250 attendees, and Moses is already working on 2018.
Thanks to selling the cruises, pre- and postcruise packages, shore excursions and travel insurance, Moses estimates he earns between 20% and 30% commission on each cruise.
"It's a very lucrative form of business," he said, but one that requires a lot of work and some expectation of failure. Moses, in fact, acknowledges that he has had some "spectacular failures" over the years.
He encouraged other agents who are interested in doing themed cruises to know what they're getting into and to understand all facets of running a themed cruise, from onboard activities to excursions and more.
"If you set your expectations correctly, you can be very successful with a 20- or 30-passenger group," he said.