Last Valentine's Day, Laura Heidt started her new post at Brownell Travel in Birmingham, Ala., as the insurance desk manager. She was tasked with, internally, answering travel advisors' questions or, if an advisor preferred, working directly with clients.
"And then, 2020 happened," said Kerry Dyer, Brownell's vice president of talent development. In Dyer's words, having Heidt on board for what would become the most disruptive year in modern travel history was both "serendipitous" and "lucky."
Lucky because, during a pandemic, travel insurance quickly rose to new levels of prominence and lucky, too, because Heidt had developed a high degree of expertise in one of travel's most complicated products, in which coverage varies from one company to next, and even from one state to another, depending upon where the traveler lives.
Heidt has the proven ability to translate her technical knowledge to consumer-speak, attaining a close rate of about 90% to 95% when she gets involved in the sale of insurance to an advisor's client. The majority of advisors who Heidt works with choose to have her step in on the sales process.
"The advisors just don't have enough time to do it or are just not comfortable. That's really the key to [the importance of] having the insurance desk," Heidt said. "It has taken a lot of anxiety off the advisors."
Brownell initially decided to introduce an insurance desk as a benefit to both its in-house advisors and independent contractors who are part of its hosting program. Dyer said insurance was one of the products that was sold the least by advisors, likely because it is misunderstood and can be difficult to talk about.
Heidt had spent 18 years as an account manager with Travelex, then about two years with Medjet as its director of travel agency sales. She already had yearslong relationships with a number of advisors and the headquarters team at Brownell.
Brownell advisors are not required to use the insurance desk, and they can still work directly with representatives from travel insurance providers if they prefer, but Heidt has become a welcome resource, Dyer said, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
With dozens of independent contractors on the books, the agency has come up with an interesting way to make sure they all have a proverbial seat at the table.
While most medical claims related to Covid-19 cases in travelers have been covered by their insurance policies, Heidt said, one thing that isn't is government-mandated travel restrictions. That has heightened the importance of cancel-for-any-reason insurance, which many providers are shying away from, or paying out less if travelers cancel their trips.
To address that issue, Heidt worked with a broker on cancel-for-any-reason policies to enable Brownell advisors to offer policies that can give clients 75% of their trip cost back if they cancel.
Heidt also stressed the importance of insurance from a liability perspective. It should be offered to all clients, and if declined, the client should be asked to sign a waiver indicating it had been offered.
"It's very important that it's offered to every client," she emphasized. "They don't have to purchase it, but they should make that choice."