One of my niche specializations is group travel. I love working with groups – I have a lot of fun organizing events for my groups, handling large amounts of information and doing all sorts of fun things in Excel to keep the numbers in check. But, it never fails to happen – at least one of my groups every year has at least two parties who have to be chased down for payments. It got me thinking – just what is my job? Am I a travel consultant or am I a bill collector?
In fact, this happened to me again not long ago. One of my cruise groups had a second deposit payment due. The group was formed and initially deposited a year before the sail date, and at registration time I had created a chart that displayed the payment dates and amounts. I had spoken to the group members at a meeting and included this information on the registration form. Everyone understood what was going on and no one had any concerns with the process.
Now, nine months later, I start making phone calls and sending emails a week before the payment due date to remind the group the next payment was coming up. I get in touch with everyone, except one client. It turns out he is waiting for a payment from another source to come through in order to have the funds available for the cruise deposit. Since I back my group payment deadlines up 10 days from the cruise line deadlines, this isn’t an issue – I tell the client there is no problem, but that I can only delay the payment for a limited time. I check back with him on Day 8, as I hadn’t heard from him, and he’s still waiting on the funds. I give him the firm deadline from the cruise line and tell him that at that point, the cruise line will release his space, and while I may be able to get it back, I could not guarantee the price will be reinstated. The client finally gets back in touch with me on Day 12, with the funds available. I reclaim his space from the cruise line and luckily enough the price hasn’t increased. This story has a “happy” ending, but I recall thinking to myself, “That client really can’t afford to cruise!”
After having a similar situation with several groups, and many of them adding unnecessary stress and frustration to the project, I decided to change my methods. Before, I simply provided them with the payment schedule and left it at that. Now, I take the extra step of indicating the payments will be automatic on the same form of payment used for the deposit unless the client indicates otherwise. I include verbiage on my credit card authorization form that states the client gives me permission to charge their cards for those amounts at those times. I still perform the courtesy calls a week prior to the due date, especially with the proliferation of debit card usage for deposits and other payments. There is no real credit line at play, so if the money is not present, the debit card can be declined. This helps to prevent that embarrassment for the client.
Below are five general tips for you to consider in helping you be less bill collector, more travel agent. In the end, it is important to remember you are not the client’s financial manager. Do not feel obligated to help them figure out how to pay for their vacation – tell them when payments are due, how much they are and the penalties for disregarding them, and leave it up to them.
- Create a Payment Schedule. Even if it is just a deposit and final payment, create a schedule you can provide to the group members to outline clearly what payments will be due and when. Include this schedule in every group communication you send out.
- Debit vs. Credit Cards. If a client provides a credit card number during registration, ask if it is a debit or credit card. If it is a debit card, later payments may be declined if the funds are not immediately accessible. Be sure to educate the client about this often unknown aspect of debit cards.
- Back Up Your Dates. The vendor provides you with the payment deadlines they require. It is good business practice to back these up by a week to ten days. This gives you ample time to work with clients who need it without compromising the group itself.
- Make It Hurt. Consider instituting a late payment fee if the client misses your payment deadline, but pays before the vendor deadline. For many people, a financial deterrent to late payments can help them keep things on track.
- Cancellation Penalties Work. Along with a late payment fee, consider instituting a cancellation charge of some kind for non-payment.
Steve Cousino, ACC, CTA, LS is a five-year industry veteran and owner of Exclusive Events At Sea and Journeys By Steve, based in Springfield, MO. In addition to producing special events on board cruise ships, he specializes in escorted tours of Europe and the Holy Land and culinary-themed travel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his websites at http://www.JourneysBySteve.com and http://www.ExclusiveEventsAtSea.com.