Relationships are the key to selling groups, according to one expert.
"The secret sauce with groups is absolutely relationship building, both between the travel agent and the customer and the travel agent and the wholesaler," said Kelly Koehler, regional operations leader of groups at Gogo Vacations.
Koehler would know. She's a 30-year industry veteran who has led groups not only for Gogo but for Travel Impressions as well. She was also with Exclusive Group Travel since its founding.
In her current post (and in past jobs), Koehler works with many top-selling agents. She said building a relationship with the customer from the beginning is one common trait she's noticed among her best advisers.
"They'll be working with a group customer for a really long time," she said, sometimes years.
With that in mind, it's best to know that customer well and check in often. She recommended interviewing the customer to find out exactly what they want out of a group. Understand the type of trip it is, whether it's a wedding, family trip, incentive or something else. Based on that, match them with a property, but make sure it's a property you know well.
"They partner and they find resorts in every one of those categories, and they do extensive training," she said of the top agents she works with. "They visit the resort. They actually get to know the employees at the resort, even down to that detail. They will steer the customer to one of the resorts they work with on a regular basis."
Top agents also offer a little something extra to make the group experience better, Koehler said; for instance, arranging a private transfer for the group leader, which can help reduce stress and make traveling easier and faster.
She also encouraged agents not to forget the other members of the group.
"Every passenger in the group is just as important as the group leader," she said. Most of the top-selling agents she works with get repeat and referral business from groups. "You have to make sure that you treat everyone within the group as a potential new customer."
Finally, Koehler said, agents selling groups have to be flexible.
Everyone wants to book a lucrative group contract, but if it's not right for the customer, offer them an alternative. For instance, Gogo recently introduced GoGroups Select, which enables agents to book groups as small as five rooms but still get group benefits. Others in the industry offer similar programs.
"That way, the agent doesn't lose the group altogether but can identify if it's not going to happen and offer another alternative," Koehler said.