LAS VEGAS -- Four top agents shared their success stories, business tips and goals with conference attendees during a keynote session at Travel Weekly's LeisureWorld 2011 and Home Based Travel Agent Show this week.
The heavily attended session, titled "Peer Power Panel: Top Agents Share Their Secrets," brought together Becky Jones, owner of Becky Jones Travel in San Antonio; Linda May-Dinsmore, owner of MayDay Travel in Vancouver; Lisa Morris, founder and president of Road Concierge in New York; and Richard Turen, Travel Weekly columnist and founder and owner of Churchill and Turen Ltd. in Naperville. Ill.
The session was moderated by Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann and Joanie Ogg, principal at HomeBasedTravelAgent.com.
May-Dinsmore kicked off the panel by noting that she's a bit old school, relying mainly on referrals. "I don't do anything fancy or any kind of marketing," she said.
What she does do is remind potential clients of the value and service that a travel agent can and should supply -- through words and actions.
For example, immediately after sending clients their travel documents, she writes a thank-you, email and sets it up to be sent automatically two days after their return home.
"I had a referral whom I sent on a cruise, and when she got back she took the time to call me and thank me for thinking to follow up with her via email," said May-Dinsmore. "She actually said no other agent had ever bothered to follow up after a vacation. She's booked three trips with me since."
Asked about her goals for the year, May-Dinsmore offered some goals for delegates instead.
"I'll set three goals for you in 2011: Change the way you speak, the way you think and the way you treat your clients."
Jones, whose home-based business has been so successful she was able to acquire a nearby brick-and-mortar agency, advised delegates to stop worrying about the competition and focus on selling themselves.
"There's so much untapped business out there. Just market yourself," she said.
Looking ahead, Jones said she, too, is making it "part of my process" to further educate the general public about the value of using a travel agent.
And although she engages in traditional ways of marketing such as postcard mailings, Jones is also implementing customer-management software this year and is launching an Internet newsletter.
"I myself enjoy getting them -- as long as it's bullet points and not too much info," she said.
Morris, a former Broadway actress who put her knowledge of long-distance, long-term travel to use when she launched Road Concierge, said that hard work, directness and empathy with client needs are the keys to success.
"My attitude is that nothing is impossible: I work 24/7 and I sleep with my cellphone," she said, crediting that work ethic and the ability to "think like a client" with the success of her 4-year-old firm.
"And if there's a request I can't handle, I will find someone who can and refer the business," Morris said, "so that client will then return to me in the future."
She said she reminds people that the personal touch is more important than anything they can find with the click of a computer mouse.
For 2011, Morris is looking to automate and delegate more, investing in technology and personnel so that she can travel more and network more often with other agents.
"I want to free myself up to do more of this: talking to people. And when I'm chained to my desk, I can't do that," she said. "You learn from every person you meet."
Turen, a Virtuoso agent, advised delegates to look at the advantages offered by host agency affiliation.
"Thanks to Virtuoso, we have 81 knowledgeable, affiliated offices around the world, and we get to meet with them in person twice a year," Turen said.
He related an anecdote in which his Rome-based Virtuoso affiliate informed him that lunches with the pope were indeed available and bookable, something he believed to be impossible.
Turen also related how his agency cultivates not only business relationships but friendships with clients. Invoices going out to his inner circle of top clients are marked with "F.A.R.," for "Friend of Angela and Richard."
"We don't really consider a client a client until they achieve F.A.R. status," he said. "That means every time the phone rings and we see it's a F.A.R., we pick it up with joy. And that's a great feeling."
Responding to an audience member who said she felt validated and vindicated by the panelists' espousal of stressing the personal touch, Morris said that agents who treat clients wonderfully are going to attract even more customers, earn more and do more of what they love to do.
"That's important to remember during the tough times ... and there are tough times," she said.