How Do Travel Conferences Need to Change? | Travel Research Online


How Do Travel Conferences Need to Change?


“Stop talking at us. Give us two-way workshops and interactive general session conversations.”

These are some of the things travel advisors are asking from conference organizers as we move through this Coronavirus. They want suppliers and destinations to talk less about their features and benefits, and teach more about finding new sales leads.

Advisors want more time for learning from each other, outside of panel discussions, and better trained sales people attending conferences, enabled and empowered to help advisors close more sales by sharing more information about what works.

And when they start traveling distances to attend live events again, travel advisors want organizers and sponsors to make it worth their while – teach them something new.



“I am so tired hearing senior executive keynotes and interviews on the main stage,” said Tracy Schatz, owner of Elite Travel Journeys, Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. Too often, she said, “they’re using talking points cleared by their attorneys, so there’s so little real information you can use. Be human. Talk like the rest of us.”

“General sales presentations are typically stale and don’t result in ‘ah ha’ moments,” said Michele Cartwright, owner at Destinations by Design, White Rock, South Carolina. She wants to see more interactive sessions and hear instructive real-world experiences.

So does Mitch Krayton, owner, Krayton Travel, Denver, Colorado. “Spare us the consumer message. Give us insights, tools and, resources the public doesn’t know about and cannot get. Empower us instead of boring us with PowerPoint slide shows. Tell us your stories. Have business-centered conversations like we are more important to you than ticking off a box. Our time is money. Make it worth it to spend that time with you.”

Kathleen Sullivan, owner of Anthology Travel, Washington, D.C., agrees. “Suppliers: give me a story to sell, not bullet points or metrics I can find on your website.”

Kathy Rainey Pickerell, travel consultant at World Travels with Kathy, would like to see more workshops featuring “helpful tools, such as what’s the best data base, itinerary builder, etc., and maybe live demos. I need things to help me run my office more efficiently and professionally. I have to learn about these in online groups from other agents.”

Rainey Pickerell believes a big part of the problem with conference workshops and general session material is that “speakers haven’t put in the work beforehand. They’ve come with their standard off-the-shelf presentation, because that’s easier than updating something with new information, or more information,” she said.

“There’s an overabundance of supplier, destination, and product training,” said Stephanie Cannon, CEO and Owner at SC Travel Design, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. “Tell me what’s new, what’s changed, and what’s coming.”

“I’ve been to enough conferences that were time wasters,” said Rainey Pickerell, who has been in the industry for 28 years, and said “I don’t have the time and money for that anymore. Tell me something new. Help me connect you with my clients. I want to come out of your session saying, ‘this would be perfect for this client of mine.’”

Get Down to Business

Helen Prochilo, owner of Promal Vacations, Long Beach, New York, recently attended a live meeting with Project Expedition, a software platform for tours and activities. “They walked us through their enhanced booking engine and new features. I learned about a feature that made it easy to provide a quote, and used it that very night for a client quote.”

As a longtime organizer of education content for industry conferences, Prochilo has heard feedback from both sides of the conference circuit. “So many times, I hear suppliers say they were disappointed in the turnout at an event,” she said. “Well, maybe that was because of what you presented? What did you bring that was different? It takes advance work to bring more than the standard sales presentation.”

“Show me something I don’t know or can’t find on your website,” said Barbara Khan, travel advisor at Journeys by the Book – Vista Travel, Inc. “I love Virtuoso Travel Week, but after about one and a half days, the presentations all blur together. I find a really good panel discussion with real info to be invaluable. I want creative new ways to reach clients and capture groups.”

“Speakers, if you are going to talk about social media, bring someone from your marketing team, or the company ad agency,” said Schatz. “I know social helps attract sales leads. But teach me the social media messaging that you feel works the best for your product.”

Stef Katz, owner of the Travel Superhero, near Orlando, Florida, chimed in with an expansion on that concept: one-on-one appointments to interview supplier reps on how to improve an agency’s social media content, using the supplier’s success stories.

Prochilo likes the weekly COVID virtual coffee chats sponsored by Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and trade support at Royal Caribbean International. “You get updates about what’s going on with Royal. They ask about what can they do to help you. They ask questions and we ask questions. She is answering questions real travel agencies have. We’re not being talked to. “

Jim Cloonan, president and CEO at the Travel Show Marketing Group, Boston, Massachusetts, believes COVID is causing content to already shift to meet travel advisors’ more crucial needs. Between feedback from agents and input from his advisory board, the most popular subjects he is sponsoring today include legal and accounting issues.

Target Content for Different Agency Business Models and Experience Levels

Experienced advisors also want to see conference organizers create more content specifically targeted at them. Said Sullivan: “I love the idea of separating out by where you are in the growth of your business. I feel like there’s a fair amount of resources aimed at people joining the industry, but then not much once you’ve become established and are gaining traction – what comes next?”

Brenda Goodsell, co-owner of Preston Travel, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada., would like to see “lectures that are geared to agencies in particular income brackets,’ like $1 to $2 million, $3 to $5 million, with information about how to grow their business volume.

Cannon understands that new to market advisors benefit from general industry sessions, but she would like to see more advanced workshop options based on advisor tenure, where suppliers and destinations teach agents how to grow their ideal client sales leads more efficiently.

“I want to see more vetting of attendees by the organizers,” said Schatz. “If you are going to say you are a family travel specialist, the organizer should look at a person’s bio, website, see what they are selling and who their ideal client is. I want other people there who want to sell what I sell. I can’t learn from someone who attends because the rate is great and they love the destination.”

More Advisor Engagement

Advisors also are pleading for less time in workshops and general sessions, and more structured time speaking with fellow agents. “I would love to see a conference that is peer oriented – focused on learning from other advisors on all different topics, as well as suppliers,” said Kristi Zaver Emo, owner at Your Dream Escapes, Fresno, California.

“Typically, it’s the advisor-to-advisor interactions that are most effective. The sharing of business experiences and ideas has helped me establish or reinvent my own practices to increase revenue,” said Cartwright.

Networking with other agents “is huge for me,” said Marianne Foshay DeIulio, independent travel consultant at Mohegan Lake, New York-based Just Travelin’. “Listening to other agents and hearing what works and doesn’t work for them has had a significant impact on my business over the years.”

There were so many other ideas, but one that I liked the most was from Stef Katz – placing competing suppliers on a panel to argue their case live before the advisor audience on why advisors should choose them. It’s provocative, but it would be great if the industry had the courage to try it.

“That would save me cutting through all the BS and clearly show the competitive advantage of one supplier over the other,” Katz said.


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.

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