Laura Del Rosso
Laura Del Rosso

As the end of the year nears, home-based travel agents may be making business plans for 2017 and thinking creatively about new directions for their agencies, including turning a travel trend or an interest into a new specialty.

How serious should agents who are brainstorming new ideas be about starting a specialty? Be careful, says Steve Gillick, president of Toronto-based Talking Travel consulting firm and a former president of the Canadian Institute of Travel Counsellors.

The first step when considering a niche or even organizing a one-off special interest tour, whether its for birdwatchers, equestrians, yoga enthusiasts or gardeners, is to "ditch the emotion," Gillick said. You may love your hobby or special interest, but it may not be worth the effort and attract sufficient revenue to grow and sustain your business, he said.

Gillick recommends using client databases to test of the feasibility of entering a special interest. In an email question-and-answer exchange, he discussed how agents could use databases effectively.

Q: Could you elaborate on testing the feasibility of a trend or niche interest by using a client database?

A: First off, the database should be customized (or allow individual customization) as much as possible so that it responds to the needs of the travel adviser. They need to brainstorm what kind of information they will need today, tomorrow and down the road to complement growth.

If you are thinking of expanding your destination offerings or specific niche markets, then you must allocate areas in the database where this information can be stored and searched through the use of keywords.

Once this is done, when you wish to test an idea you can do your keyword search to see how many clients have expressed an interest in that area.  If you are able to get a bit more sophisticated then you may be able to gauge interest by degrees, i.e. very interested, interested, somewhat interested.

Q: How can travel agents use their database and poll their past, current and future clients?

A: Once you, the agent, are able to set up queries in the database, then you can pull up just about any demographic information -- statistical information that may include such things as gender, age, travel budget, areas where clients reside, most traveled destinations, etc. -- but also psychographic information. This is the "why" they want to travel.

It could be freedom from routine, silent meditation, to lay on a beach, climb a mountain, as well as those niche market interests: hiking, chocolate, bicycling, wine, cheese, cooking, markets, antiques, art galleries, etc.

Past clients should be in the database. Never delete a client. You can archive former clients, but make sure you have the ability to access that archive.

Future clients are the friends, relatives of your current clients: your referrals.  If they aren't in your database then market to your current clients and come up with something catchy such as 'do you and a friend want to have a private sushi class on your next trip to Japan'?  The client may not be particularly interested but may know of someone who loves Japanese culture, and now you have a new addition to your database.

And, of course, future clients are those to whom you market in your company newsletter or flyers that you leave in the dentist's office (with their permission, of course), on the supermarket bulletin board or on your website and social media feeds.

Q: Why is this valuable to determining whether to enter a new specialty? How can it help?

A: Creating a specialty area or niche market may have some emotional underpinnings; after all, you would not specialize in horseback-riding tours unless you had at least a passing interest in horses and riding and the outdoors.  But the bottom line is that it is a business decision that requires a proper business or action plan with goals and deadlines and budgets.

Part of that plan involves projections of what you hope to accomplish in the first year or the first quarter of the year, and this can only be accomplished with some realistic statistics.  If you have 2,500 people in your database and 300 have an interest in horses, then possibly 5% to 10% may be interested in a dedicated horseback riding tour. Can you run a business based on 30 people possibly taking the tour you want to introduce?
On the other hand, if out of your 2,500, 1,800 have some interest in food tours that can include cooking, wine, sake, beer, food markets and meeting chefs, then you would have a more realistic chance of success in offering tours with a foodie emphasis.

Of course, you could do a one-time-only one/off horseback-riding tour. If you get 30 people, and if that works in your budgeting to allow for a profit, then you may want to start an annual event that could grow through word-of-mouth and referrals into something more substantial.

Q: What kinds of questions should agents ask their database of clients?

A: Databases are set up to respond to queries or keyword searches. So it's really a matter of interviewing your clients as thoroughly as possible to get as much information on their travel 'provenance' as possible.  
Provenance refers to everything that influences their travels, from their family situation (married? kids? single?), their travel budget, their past experiences both good and bad.

You need to know the 'flavor' of the trips they take (hard adventure, soft adventure, beach, luxury, golf, shopping, fashion, arts, superluxury) and you also need to know what they would like to do 'if they could wave a magic wand' and do anything they want. ('I would love to join a fisherman early in the morning and then learn to cook everything we caught; I would love to go behind the scenes at the Bolshoi or the Met; I would love to walk through a rainforest with a private guide').

All questions should be open-ended so that the client is encouraged to freeflow other ideas that you may not have even thought about. And asking questions is an art in itself. You will learn to dig deeper for information the more you relate to clients.

(Responses have been edited for length and to conform with Travel Weekly style and standards.)

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