In the spirit of the Easter basket, usually filled with your favorite delectable delights and surprises, can we just talk about customer gifts? You know about those, right? The very thoughtful and trip appropriate items that are packaged so cleverly and delivered to your client as a wonderful surprise with the travel documents or to the stateroom or hotel room, causing the client to squeal with delight? When you got into this business, did you have any idea that the travel agent was responsible for all of this? And by “all” I mean thinking of an amazing gift, shopping for the gift, paying for the gift with a chunk of the ‘amazing’ booking commission and many times packaging and delivering the gift. I don’t know about you, but this was a part of the job that I was totally unprepared for when I became a travel consultant.
I don’t mean to be an Easter Scrooge, but I’ve now determined that this responsibility is not in my job description. After playing that game for a few years, dropping baskets of “goodies” on people’s doorsteps, I have found a simple and practical replacement that I believe better meets the traveler’s needs as well as my own. I’ll describe that plan later, but first, here are three questions to ask for evaluating your own customer gift giving practices:
Are the gifts well received?
I tried a lot of different things from beach bags stuffed with sunscreen and ChapStick, to food and wine baskets and CD’s pre-loaded with traveling music; but it became clear that the gifts were not highly valued. In all honesty, the surprise was fun, the thoughtfulness was appreciated, but the gifts themselves were throwaways. What the customers really appreciated was a thoughtful vacation plan with good advice, and maybe some extra cash in their pockets. Better shoppers might have better results; I attended a workshop at a travel conference last year where the presenter showed pictures of the amazing baskets she created for her clients who loved them on a slim margin. As a non-shopper though, my baskets were not very amazing.
How much time and money do you spend on gifting?
Most in the travel industry agree that the budget for the customer gift should be about 10% of the agent’s commission; but even at any price, there is also the cost of your time. In the beginning, I had less customers and more time available. But as my time became more precious, the more difficult the gift shopping became. I found myself running through Target under pressure, spending too much or settling for throwaway trinkets in order to deliver the documents on time. When I started selling groups, it was obvious that I was not going to be able to create 30 gift baskets and deliver them. Then I discovered a problem—what to do about single travelers. Was I going to create a half basket for the single traveler? Following the suggested 10% rule, I obviously could not spend the same amount on a single as I did for the couple but I had to make the gifts seem equal.
What do you want to accomplish with the gift?
To be perfectly frank, the gift should be all about you and your business. I looked at the gifts I had been handing out and decided that they were not professional and did not make my business shine. I didn’t think the customers would be showing their sunscreen to their friends and proclaiming what a great travel agent they had. It occurred to me that any gift I gave out should be useful to the traveler; but should also promote my business. If the customer happened to share it with a friend, the friend would have my name and number on an item that reflects who I am. In my case, this item could be a corkscrew, a travel wine bottle carrier, a travel picnic set or something else related to my culinary and wine specialty.
My new gift plan now meets the traveler’s needs and my own. This is the simple plan: provide one highly coveted promotional item in addition to “spending money” for their trip. The promotional item should ideally fit inside the zippered travel pouch that I use for presenting the travel documents eliminating the need for “wrapping”. I simply load the documents and everything inside, zip it up and tie a nice ribbon around it. It’s fun and functional.
For last year’s wine cruise group, I ordered hundreds of travel corkscrew/bottle openers with my name and tagline: “Creating your Tasteful Travel Experiences”. I ordered plenty more than needed and have been handing them out to all of my customers with their travel documents ever since. My group loved them and so do my other customers. Some, who forgot to pack them in their checked bag, had them taken away by the TSA and actually called me to request another.
In addition to this inexpensive but highly valued promotional item, I include some other useful things like pens and sticky pads inside their travel document packet. These things are meant to be shared with others. I have them on hand and ready to go eliminating all last minute shopping. I also have a collection of items I’ve collected at trade shows (luggage tags, breath mints and pens) that I can throw in if it seems appropriate.
For the trip spending money, I order a bottle of wine or onboard credit for cruises in the amount of the 10% of commission rule. Or, for customers traveling in other countries, I may include Euros or foreign currency in small denominations to be used to tip the driver who takes them to their hotel.
Occasionally I’ve upgraded to private transfers on land tours, or provided a day pass to the airline lounge if the commission is high enough. If the commission is very small, I include a Starbucks gift card to be used at the airport. These things are easy, effective and appreciated. And I always make sure I take credit for the perks when putting together their itinerary.
I am now searching for the next highly coveted promotional item for this year’s travelers. Although it could be a luggage scale or travel pillow, I’d like something more fitting to my niche. What gifts are you giving? Is the 10% rule still effective? What do you think your travelers would like in place of the chocolate bunny?
Pam Hallberg is a travel consultant who enjoys arranging food and wine themed tours and cruises. She owns her own home-based business, Hallberg Travel & Tours: Creating Tasteful Travel Experiences.