The travel industry needs to consider a radical rehaul of just about everything we do that involves travel advisors. And, when I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING.
Since March, I’ve been holding lots of private talks with advisors and industry executives about how this pandemic is impacting their businesses. Most importantly, we’ve been discussing what’s necessary to help the entire industry recover.
Almost everyone has said these bleak days are an opportune time to open EVERYTHING for discussion. That’s why you see cruise companies aggressively retiring whole classes of ships early. You see airports and airlines thinking about innovative technologies to protect travelers from viruses. You hear about some travel companies delivering a portion of an agent’s commission when a client’s deposit arrives.
This is all great stuff. I’m so glad we are having these strategic and practical discussions. Like the old saying goes, “No good crisis should go to waste.” The necessity of survival often pushes us to entertain ideas that before a crisis seemed completely unreasonable.
So, it’s time to discuss all of the sacred cows we worship in travel, from how commissions are paid, to the way we conduct travel industry conferences, to supplier/destination “training & certification” courses. EVERYTHING.
The reason why is because this pandemic has dramatically reshaped a significant portion of the traveler’s buying decision – perhaps not permanently, but definitely until the threat of this virus (and perhaps new ones) subsides.
The consumer’s fear about catching the virus and, more importantly, the fear that their travel plans will be upended by COVID-related issues, has made the professional travel advisor supremely important to restarting travel today. They are the expert who helps the consumer understand what’s required to enter their vacation destination. They help explain the complexities of reduced airline flight schedules. They talk travelers through what a vacation experience will be like with closed restaurants, limited recreational activities, etc.
At the same time, the industry has dramatically reduced its advertising to the general public, and is distributing information to the public primarily through their own websites and email. This leaves the well-incented travel professional as the best keeper of the most accurate information across all aspects of travel.
They also are the single person most able to generate consumer confidence for traveling again. They have the most intimate knowledge of their clients’ fears and longings. They are the traveler’s most trusted advisor.
I helped run sales and client management teams at American Express for about ten years. If there was one thing I learned in those roles, it’s that if you correctly incentivize smart, ambitious people, you can achieve amazing things.
Over the next month or two, I’m going to dive into a number of travel’s sacred cows. I’m going to be asking executives and advisors to join in and help all of us ponder a future that elevates travel advisors through radically different supplier/destination relationships.
Here are a few of the areas we’re going to cover:
My goodness. Where do I start? Ladies and gentlemen, the conventional FAM model is broken. I have travel advisor friends (mostly experienced, and with a large and loyal following) who know how to work a FAM trip to their sales advantage. They succeed in spite of the broken nature of FAM trips. Meanwhile, the majority of advisors fail to use them effectively. We’ve got to move past the “six resorts in four days” inspection trip model, and invest more time helping travel advisors be strategic about how they will source clientele pre-, post-, and during the FAM.
First off, let’s abolish the word. You train a dog to roll over. You train a child to go on the potty. Can we start calling the process of making travel advisors better business owners and travel sellers something other than “training?” Once we reframe the definition, it’s time to deliver better materials that improve an advisor’s ability to source ideal prospects and close more of them. Let’s follow that up with certifications that mean something to the consumer.
We need to hold suppliers and destinations to delivering a much higher standard of information at our major meetings and conventions. Showing the typical sales videos, droning on with laundry lists of features and benefits, and presenting information that an advisor could easily Google, is an affront to every travel advisor who invested their time and money to attend a conference.
Recruiting New IC’s
This one’s going to get ugly. But it’s a frank discussion that needs to be had – yet again. In fact, I remember my colleagues at Tour & Travel News having this same contentious discussion back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some things never change. In this case, it feels like they’re getting worse. Aggressive sales pitches from card mills promising free and discounted travel; multi-level marketing programs endorsed by suppliers playing a volume game… it all stinks and lowers the image of the true travel professional.
And, just so you don’t think I’ve got an agenda against suppliers and destinations, this message is for travel advisors too – YOU need to step up your game. This pandemic is going to weed out a lot of those advisors who were more like “travel agents” and less like business owners who sell travel. The days of not understanding how to manage cash flow, generate sales leads in a digital world, and collaborate with your suppliers to grow everyone’s piece of the pie are over. I’ll be writing a whole column about that too.
Experts believe that demand will be suppressed substantially for a prolonged period of time. Like slices of a pie, subsets of travelers are going to come back on different timelines and have different wants and needs in this age of Coronavirus. To maximize how large we grow that pie, and get it out of the oven more quickly, will require more intelligent marketing and better sales skills from travel advisors. If you think the way you ran your business up through January 2020 is going to get you through the next three years, you’re in for a rude awakening.
Nearly everything has changed – except for the innate desire for humans to want to visit foreign places, relax on beaches, indulge in the self-care hospitality professionals provide, and meet with business colleagues. If you want to tap into that “pent-up demand” (and all of the complexity that comes with that overused term), you too are going to have change.
I hope everyone will be a part of this discussion.
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.