2020 may be the worst of times for the travel industry, but some advisors still are having a pretty good year—thanks to new niches, new marketing and even new offices.
In Pennsylvania, for example, president Jennifer Doncsecz and the team at VIP Vacations are celebrating a record year in destination weddings that had the phone ringing through the pandemic.
They moved all but five of the 100 groups that were on the books for 2020 to 2021—and then booked even more every single month during the Covid crisis. By July and August, they were booking 25% more groups than in the same two months of 2019.
The brides come from around the country, through referrals and online posts—especially posts of Doncsecz herself in Mexico, where she has gone three times since the virus struck. She also credits her storefront, and the full-time team of salaried employees in it, with keeping their name in front of customers.
“We make a big deal about the fact that we are open; we sent out a press release, we have Google and Bing business listings; we put a big banner on our front door; I did a video and made an announcement on Facebook. Every signature on every email says we are open for business,” she says. “Our brides tell me they looked at our reviews and recommendations, but there’s also something psychological about seeing we have a physical office—and it is open.”
Also helpful, in a 2020 sort of way, is the inclination of current brides to want to talk to someone on the phone, often for as long as 90 minutes. Where last year, she was just too busy to spend that much time with a customer—and her interaction with brides tended to be almost completely via text—the time she now spends with them is building the bonds that close sales.
“I’ve never talked to so many brides; I think they are lonely,” she says. “It’s been probably 12 years since I could tell you the name of every bride—and now we’re back to where I know every couple. So one tip is to remember the power of connections, and, when there’s not as much immediate new business, invest more time. And since the Europe, the cruises, the Disney, the Hawaii is not there yet, look at Tahiti and the Maldives and the destination weddings.”
At All Travel Company, owner Susanne Haire also is booking strong destination wedding business—even without traveling herself (due to health concerns) or doing any advertising, she says. In Year-6 of her business, and with no ICs and no advertising budget, she has closed $4.4 million in destination weddings for 2021, plus one in Mexico right now and another headed there in November.
Haire was supposed to have 18 weddings plus a group in 2020, with 70% of them coming from Facebook and 30% from referrals, she says. She moved 13 of those to 2021—”and I’ve been getting one or two or three calls every day. Now I have 43 weddings for next year, and they keep coming. I have a meeting today and if they want to book, I’m not even sure I can put them on my schedule, I’m so busy already,” she says.
The Facebook customers come not just from her own page, but also from the informative comments she posts on any tourism pages and travel sites she comes across, she says.
“If I’m just sitting and watching TV, I’ll check what comes up,” she says. “I’ve gotten messages saying, ‘I saw your comment on Cheryl Rosen’s page and I like what you said. Do you think you can help me?’ I tell them to stalk me, to search for my name and look up the comments I have made and see if they like what I say, because they are going to be spending a year with me.”
Apparently most do like what they see; her close rate post-covid is 91%, she says.
Dealing with couples who, before covid, never considered taking their wedding out of the country is less about destinations and more about education, she has found. “My job used to be to sell you a beautiful place; now it’s all about risk mitigation—how can I make sure you are less likely to lose money if something goes awry. It used to be going to see resorts, now it’s saying, ‘Don’t buy this place, you are safer and more likely to get your money back at that one.’”
Some Have a New Business Model
At Plenty of Fun Travel in Dallas, Scott Asplund also has shifted his niche—from cruises to all-inclusives—and also focused on beefing up his staff of independent contractors (ICs) to bring customers in. His volume for 2020 is running about 85% of last year’s total.
“You have to adapt to the way things are,” he says. In 2019 he and his team of 200 (mostly retired and part-time ICs he met on his travels over the years) did about $7 million in sales, 15% of it to all-inclusive resorts. But as cruises halted, he had all his agents take online courses on the covid-era top seller: all-inclusives in the Caribbean and Mexico. “Maybe five of my ICs sold an all-inclusive in all of 2019—and we’ve sold $1 million worth in the past 60 days alone,’” he says.
In business full-time for just five years, Asplund went from #1000 at Travel Planners International to #1 three years ago and has held the position every year since—and expects to do it again in 2020, when he is on track to sell about 85% of last year’s volume.
To get there, he’s recruiting new agents, “signing up new people and growing my business every week.” Most find him on Facebook, or are former members of MLMs looking for more support. “Everyone here is an IC,” he says. “They each have their own small business, but they also are part of a big company, Travel Planners International, and part of a mid-sized company, my company.”
…And Some Just Tell Their Story
For Eric Hrubant at CIRE Travel, surprisingly, success came in the form of a return to corporate travel—and a focus on telling his own story.
“I must say things are okay,” he reports. “April was a zero month but starting in May I have a corporate account that’s been doing a lot of business in Abu Dhabi, so I’ve been very lucky that business has been strong.” And leisure, too, seems to be rebounding. “Each month is better than the previous.”
To get there, Hrubant ramped up his marketing on sites like The Knot and LinkedIn, with a focus on telling his own success stories of how he helped clients travel in a time of corona.
“This is a golden opportunity for travel advisors to show their value by story-telling,” he says. “This is the time to hit home the human connection, telling how you are available and professional, how you are an ally – and I’ve been doing that nonstop since this started.” He has already picked up a new corporate account, whose owner saw his posts on LinkedIn and decided it was time to use a professional travel agent instead of a call center.
While his website always featured one new article a week of original content, he’s beefed that up with interviews with partners, talking about their properties, as well as daily Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts, and a weekly LinkedIn. “LinkedIn works really well for corporate travel; The Knot and WeddingWire for honeymoons; and we’re getting more and more traction with Instagram.”
For his best customers, he celebrated his seventh anniversary in business with an “old-fashioned mailing” of the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die – with a note saying, “While you may or may not feel comfortable traveling now, here’s 1,000 places to see when you are ready.” The mailing cost $1,500, but he figures he already has gotten four times that in bookings, including one sailing trip to Croatia, one Spain, and one private villa in Mexico for the 2020 festive season.
“I can’t stress enough that for all travel advisors, whether corporate or leisure, just starting out or seasoned, social media is free and you don’t need a lot of expertise to tell a story. Any time you do something, even just planning a trip, just go on social media and tell people.”
And if you are quoted in the press, in a column like this one, “post it everywhere,” he says. “Keep a list of all the links to articles in which you are quoted, and put that as an autosignature on your emails.”
While this year’s sales are down from the $20 million he did last year, he’s happy with the more than $10 million he has brought in so far in 2020.
Some Pay to Play…
In Overland Park, KS, meanwhile, Dave Operach also has seen his role shift. Where last year the majority of his business was in cruises, it’s the all-inclusive segment that has the phones ringing right now at his Dream Vacations franchise. To help spur that interest, he and his wife Donna themselves traveled to Universal Orlando and to Cancun, and reported back on Facebook and in his agency newsletters. “Our traveling has definitely helped clients see what it’s like in the ‘new normal’ and eased their fears,” he says. But it’s advertising that has kept his business alive.
Operach has been doing direct marketing, online and via email, throughout the pandemic; in July he resumed direct mail as well. He’s also done virtual events with suppliers; his Rocky Mountaineer event, being something new for his clientele, “was very successful and sparked a lot of interest,” he says.
He reopened his storefront in May and looks forward to returning to consumer shows in January. This week he began running Google ads. “We have five-star Google ratings, we’re local and we have a storefront, so we get a lot of folks calling from our Google search ads and a lot of referrals,” he says.
And Some Forge a New Path
K&E Travel owner, Mark Elie, is defining success in a different way. For the past 25 weeks he’s been helping feed 1,000 families, unloading a tractor trailer and a half of milk and fresh eggs and vegetables frozen food in Wellington, FL. He’s kept his office open, paying his employees out of his own pocket when necessary. “After 39+ years in business, I’m not giving up,” he says.
And Kathleen Scanlon at Somerset Tours in Massachusetts hopes a lucky break will bring her success. In the midst of a pandemic, she saw a beautiful office abandoned by Liberty Travel and leaped at the opportunity to rent it.
“I jumped into the deep end of the pool with no life raft,” she says. “But I honestly believe travel will come back.”
Working from a small office near her home in 2019, Scanlon’s sales were about $300,000. But when she saw that vacant space, right there on a main street downtown, she polled “some of her favorite BDMs”—and took their advice to go for it.
While the new office is twice as big as her current one and twice the rent, “I’m just going to bite the bullet because I know travel is going to come back with a vengeance,” she says. “My clients all are rebooking for next year, so I’m not worried about the income for 2021. I just have to row the boat until then.”
On the one hand, she acknowledges, “I don’t know if this was a really stupid move or a very bold bad-ass move. It’s a big risk.”
On the other hand, though, “I’m real excited about the future. Covid is just a big giant bump in the road. If everyone does what they have to do, the world will get back to normal.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.