Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

Putting together a group trip during the pandemic is not just possible, it's something agents are working on today. Here are the stories of three advisors who have successfully gotten future travel on the books.

All three employed what Gifted Travel Network (GTN) co-founder and chief sales officer Vanessa McGovern has dubbed the "come with me strategy:" Advisors are leading the trips themselves, and advertising them as such, giving consumers the confidence to pull the trigger and book. As McGovern acknowledged, the strategy isn't a new one in the industry, but it is new for GTN. The host previously encouraged advisors to use the pied-piper strategy, wherein the advisor finds a group leader and does not travel with the group themselves.

Emer Coughlin, who owns Atlanta-based Celtic Hearts Travel with her business partner Dervila Stivers, got the ball rolling among GTN advisors.

Early in the year, Coughlin and Stivers were gearing up to host an in-person event at a wine bar for a European river cruise on AmaWaterways in 2021. It was a brand-new itinerary with a special deal -- travelers could save $1,000 if the trip was booked by April 30.

"Of course, everything went sideways in February and March," Coughlin recalled.

Like many of her peers, Coughlin was spending a lot of time on webinars to stay connected and learn. That led her to the possibility of holding her event virtually. She was running out of time to organize it and meet the deadline, but she was able to get AmaWaterways to extend the promotion for a month, and she hit the ground running.

She advertised the virtual event on social media, in a networking group and in her weekly electronic newsletter. She held it on a Monday night and recorded it, making the recording available for those who couldn't attend live. She sold the trip on the fact that she and Stivers were leading the group.

"I really think that's what it was," she said. "They were like, 'Oh, well, if you're going, then we'll go.'  It just gave people confidence."

The two-week booking window was also a help. Within the space of a week, Coughlin had sold 15 cabins on the deal. Even now that the promotion has ended, people are still interested in booking.

"The stars aligned," she said. "It was perfect."

Carol McKee, owner of McKee Travel in Charlotte, N.C., was inspired by Coughlin's story. She recently attended several webinars hosted by Celestyal Cruises, looking for a supplier partner for the Greek islands. 

She decided to book herself on two cruises, one for May 2022. She asked a few friends who she often travels with to join her, and two couples said yes.

"And then they started telling people and people started contacting me, and I booked a couple more cabins," McKee said. "And then I thought, 'OK, let's turn this into the come with me strategy, because obviously there's interest in this.'"

She started with a subtle Facebook post: A picture of Santorini, captioned with "This is what I'm looking forward to." Someone asked, "Santorini?" Yes, McKee responded -- she found a good deal on a cruise that she was looking forward to.

McKee then began emailing people who had seen the post and included it in her weekly newsletter. She, like Coughlin, was able to utilize a promotion, this time a Black Friday sale that ended Nov. 30. She spent most of Thanksgiving Day doing bookings. In total, she has booked 25 cabins.

"Now I feel like not only did I actually get some bookings, which is wonderful, but I feel like I've expanded my client base, and I have expanded my reach and created awareness," she said.

McKee also sparked interest in Coughlin, who saw McKee's Facebook post; she's sold 11 cabins on the same cruise thus far.

Like many, Wendy Chambers, owner of Victory Travel in Westport, Conn., decided to start holding virtual travel nights for her clients over the course of the pandemic "to give people a break." She planned her first event around Kenya, a place where she's spent a lot of time. A colleague encouraged her to plan a group trip she could talk about during the event.

Chambers put together a July 2022 itinerary and kicked off her virtual night in September. She focused on the country and what it's like, then announced the group tour.

"Nine weeks and four days later, I had all 10 spots filled for this curated and private tour, because people want to know that they can go with me and that I'm familiar with every restaurant, every hotel," she said.

Three other bookings have spun off that initial group trip, as well, that will be in Kenya at the same time. Chambers is planning a welcome dinner for all her travelers before they head out on their itineraries.

Notably, neither Coughlin, McKee nor Chambers have traveled internationally since the pandemic began, McGovern said. Many advisors are using their own travel as an impetus to spark bookings among clients. Instead, McGovern said, all three have proactively asked clients to book and to travel with them.

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