by Peter J. Bates

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Planning for the Rest of 2010

According to conversations I’ve had with my friends in the travel agent community, 2010 is shaping up to be a much better year than 2009, but many challenges still lie ahead as agencies look to climb the ladder of profitability. Doing better than last year is a huge plus, but the barometer you should measure yourself against is that of more profitable years from the recent past. We must keep reality in check.

Now that the first quarter of 2010 is over, I’ve outlined out what I perceive to be the five biggest challenges that remain for the year with some suggestions on how best to address them.

Challenge 1: Maintaining and Growing Your Client Base
Winning new clients and retaining current ones must remain a top priority. We all know very well that a healthy customer base is the foundation of a healthy business.

Stay connected via phone, e-mail and/or social media with your valued clients. Maintain ‘top of mind’ presence by keeping the lines of communication open. Impress your clients with how well you know them by presenting vacation suggestions sure to fit their individual tastes and preferences.

Encourage ‘word of mouth’ praise because the payoff to you is invaluable. Consider incentivizing your current clients to bring you new potential customers. That investment (in terms of an upgrade or special extra to enhance the luxury vacation experience) can yield huge rewards for you and your business.

Tap into local community events to build awareness of your depth of knowledge and the customized travel experiences you can deftly craft.

Challenge 2: Understanding How to Sell to Today’s Upscale Consumer
Today’s high-end consumer has changed. They possess a new mindset that we need to understand and engage in order for us to succeed with a sale. And, the best way to comprehend this mindset is through relevant conversation with your customers.

Consumers are also taking a more collaborative approach with their travel advisors. Their wanderlust spirit and increased used of technology to search for information encourages them to bring more to the table than just their wallet.

They are seeking vacations that provide distinctive experiences and substantial value – not just financial but a value that connects to something personally enriching. This relates to why ‘voluntourism vacations’ is a trend that has seen growth in the past half-year. Today’s luxury consumers also continue to be inspired by family travel opportunities.

Challenge 3: Promoting Agent Value
You’ve worked hard to develop a reputation for your travel expertise. You’ve done your research. You’ve spent time traveling in order to personally experience the offerings of hotels, cruises and tour companies around the world. And, you’ve cultivated relationships with global suppliers whom you can reach out to for special extras for your clients.

Don’t be afraid to showcase the value you deliver to your clients – whether it’s conveyed through phone or e-mail conversation, featured on your agency’s website, or outlined in the travel documents you prepare for them. Be your own champion.

As travel professionals, you possess a tremendous value that should be appreciated by your clients. Those are the customers you want to keep.

Challenge 4: Effectively Harnessing Social Media
Incorporating social media into your business strategy is vital. If you continue to view technology as your enemy, it’ll continue to defeat you. It’s here to stay so embrace it. Your younger customers are, in all likelihood, completely connected and Internet savvy. Your older clients might surprise you with their tech abilities.

We’ve become accustomed to an impersonal world, and social media is actually satisfying a need people have for a sense of community. They share stories, wishes and interests. People want to engage in conversation, and the anonymity of some social media platforms is highly appealing. Adapting to these changes shows your flexibility as a travel professional and enhances the value you provide your customers.

Since we know that conversation is key to sales success, don’t cut yourself off from the dialogue.

Challenge 5: Combating the ‘Deals’ Mentality
Tout ‘quality, quality, quality’ and educate your clients on how that can be comprised for ‘the deal.’ Gently remind them that planning a luxury vacation should not be akin to the game show ‘Deal or No Deal.’ Holding out for a discount isn’t the same as designing the trip of a lifetime.

Although people are still cautious with their travel spending, we must encourage the importance of purchasing a travel experience based on ‘excellence’ as opposed to a shorter lead time.

Signs are encouraging for the future, but we must remain realistic about our climb back to success. Agencies report better sales now than six months ago, and clients have given themselves permission to spend money on travel again, which is excellent news, but much of the statistics are compared to 2009, the worst year in the travel industry. None of us are the same as we were pre-recession – so we should take what we’ve learned and build a new strategic platform upon that. Travel advisors can shape themselves into more savvy vacation planners and redefine their role far into the future.

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