The “Post-Recession Strategies in Upscale and Group Travel” workshop // © 2011 Deborah Dimond
TravelAge West hosted its first-ever ExecConnect: Elite Agent Symposium onboard Holland America Line’s (HAL) Zuiderdam May 11-14. The ship, which was on a repositioning cruise to begin sailing Alaska itineraries out of Vancouver, B.C., was the venue for three days of seminars at sea. The goal of these meetings was to bring travel agents and suppliers together in a face-to-face environment for education, business development and networking. Meeting opportunities included three general sessions on building business, marketplace appointments — which were held in a speed-dating format — and workshop panels on topics ranging from “An Insider’s Guide to Western Canada” to “Post-Recession Strategies in Upscale and Group Travel.” Agents and suppliers who attended hailed the event as a success, noting that the one-on-one Time was helpful for business on both sides.
Prospecting for New Business
Led by Marc Kazlauskas, president of Insight Vacations, the three general sessions were focused on helping agents. The first of the sessions kicked-off ExecConnect on the opening night following a sail-away reception held by HAL. The topic was "Prospecting for New Business," and information included matchmaking, identifying new leads, qualifying leads, finding a niche and more. Kazlauskas advised agents that before they could take the first step to finding new business, they should ask themselves an important question: "Why did you become a travel agent?"
In order for agents to best match themselves with their potential clients, he advised them to come up with their "USPs' -- unique selling points -- by thinking of four reasons why a client would book with them. Then, Kazlauskas suggested agents pick a specialty.
Each general session included a discussion led by Kazlauskas and was followed by a panel discussion that included a supplier and an agent. During the first session, he was joined by Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar, and Jason Coleman, president of Jason Coleman Inc. Wiseman provided additional insight in terms of prospecting for new clients and targeting consumers, noting that women are a key demographic.
"Sixty percent of travelers are women," said Wiseman. "They make the decisions."
Coleman suggested agents target residents of their neighborhood the same way that a realtor does with flyers and brochures.
One of the most interesting topics was a discussion about qualifying leads and identifying "buyers" versus "shoppers."
"All buyers have to start out as shoppers," said Coleman. "Shoppers and buyers are all travelers; some are just easier to close than others." Wiseman agreed.
"There are dreamers, researchers and unticketed travelers," he said. "Research shows that people have six to 12 destinations cycling around in their minds. At some point, something happens to trigger one of those destinations."
The first general session wrapped up with a discussion on follow-up and the importance of asking the right questions of clients.
Attendees listened to recordings of a mystery shopper who called randomly selected agencies asking for travel advice. During the first call, the mystery shopper was placed on hold for 14 minutes before being asked to leave a message. The second call was answered by an agent reading from a script. The mystery shopper was asked to leave a message for an agent who had left the office or to call back another time.
"You have to 'wow' clients immediately," said Kazlauskas. "Otherwise, they will shop somewhere else."
Helpful tips for following up included getting a client's name, email and phone number; asking how they heard about you and tracking what works; and taking the lead to establish the next steps.
Qualifying Your Clients
ExecConnect's second day began with a series of supplier appointments. These appointments took the form of a speed-dating marketplace. Agents sat at numbered tables and the suppliers rotated from table to table every seven minutes. By the end of the session, each agent had heard from 15 suppliers during the first two-hour session. The session was then followed by the first set of panel workshops and then a break for lunch.
Following lunch, attendees headed to the second General Session. The day's topic was "Qualifying Your Clients." Once again, Kazlauskas led the conversation.
"In order to be successful," he said, "agents have to understand their customers and their needs before they give them advice."
The discussion began with advice for how agents should discuss travel with their clients.
"Imagine going to a doctor's office and, without even asking any questions, the doctor says 'Here are five prescriptions for you, do these three things and call me in a week,'" he said. "You would never return again."
Kazlauskas told attendees that agents do this same thing by trying to sell travel products before they ask their clients enough questions. Then, he listed five questions agents should ask: what's your name; what kind of research have you done; how are you used to traveling/what are some past trips you've liked; what have you been dreaming of doing on vacation; and what are some of your past vacation likes and dislikes?
According to Kazlauskas, once you know what to ask, the next step is to listen.
"It's not enough to ask the right questions," he said. "You have to listen to the answers. Listening should take up 100 percent of your attention."
Attendees then participated in a listening exercise. One agent was chosen out of the audience and a recording was played of a potential client talking about her family and what they were looking for on a multigenerational family summer trip. The client had a lot of specific information and, after listening to the entire message, the agent and the audience began to piece together the details in order to make suggestions for a vacation.
"Don't forget to pick up on any names the client mentions," hinted Kazlauskas. "When you give those names back to the client, it really shows them that you're listening and paying attention."
From there, the conversation turned to the importance of staying informed in order to be able to make the perfect recommendation.
"That's one of the great things about fam trips," said Kazlauskas. "It's great if you can tell your client that you've actually been on that tour or sailed on that cruise ship because it will be hard for them to top that with their own research."
Up-selling was also highly recommended. Kazlauskas told attendees that they shouldn't be afraid to up-sell clients on a superior product. Agents will find that clients will be upset if an agent fails to at least offer a premium service, said Kazlauskas. He gave examples of up-selling that occur in everyone's daily lives, such as super-sizing at McDonald's.
According to a YPartnership survey, "2010 Portrait of American Travelers," one in four travelers said that they would be willing to pay as much as 20 percent more for products or services customized to their specifications.
Building a Repeat Client Base
The third day of ExecConnect began with the second round of marketplace appointments. During this session, agents met with more suppliers during a series of seven-minute meetings.
The subject of the third General Session was "Building a Repeat Client Base." Kazlauskas spoke about the importance of developing repeat business and told agents that, if they want to make sure that clients don't go elsewhere, they have to service them.
He noted that, when it comes to the bottom line, repeat clients cost considerably less money to attract than new ones.
He recommended that, in a five-day work week, agents should spend at least one day being proactive, using the time to call clients and make appointments.
"If you aren't communicating with your customers, someone else is," he said.
Kazlauskas then suggested five ways to create repeat clients: say thank you; call them back; write to them; surprise them with a small gift; and do something special for them such as take them out to lunch.
Another way to create a repeat client base is to develop loyalty. Kazlauskas led attendees in a discussion on which brands excel at developing brand loyalty and agents mentioned successful companies such as Apple, Marriott, Best Buy, Starbucks and more.
Capturing the right data is another tool necessary in developing client retention. Kazlauskas recommended asking for information such as previous travel history, previous travel expenditure and other nuances. Going above and beyond and capturing clients' likes and dislikes, hobbies, milestone events and more will give agents an even better edge, he said.
According to Michele Saegesser, vice president of sales, North and South America, for Viking River Cruises, converting clients into regular customers is key. During the panel discussion, she advised agents that one of the ways in which they could improve their bookings was to build a repeat clientele. According to Viking's research, the cruise line has found that the average agent loses 60 percent of the bookings they hold with the company.
"Don't just grab space, but close the sale," said Saegesser. "When people pay a deposit, there is a very slim chance that they will cancel."
Saegesser noted that, in order to help agents build business, Viking will partner with them for a cruise night and even foot the bill for the event.
At the close of the third general session, agents participated in another round of panel workshops before the event closed with a reception hosted by Norwegian Cruise Line. At the reception, agents who attended each general session, both marketplaces and at least six of the workshops were entered into a drawing for travel prizes from event sponsors such as CIE Tours, Las Vegas, MGM, Grand Velas, Oceania Cruises, Travel Impressions, AmaWaterways and more. Two lucky agents received the grand prize provided by Norwegian: A week onboard the Epic in either Europe or the Caribbean.