On Business Strategies, PPP, and Legislative Day: With Alex Sharpe and Jackie Friedman | TravelResearchOnline

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On Business Strategies, PPP, and Legislative Day: With Alex Sharpe and Jackie Friedman

ASTA’s annual Legislative Day brought a crowd of travel advisors and consortium executives to Washington to talk travel industry issues and concerns. I caught up with two of my favorite people, Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network, and Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion LLC, following their press conference there to talk about some of the biggest concerns of travel advisors.

Here’s what they said:

What advice do you have for travel advisors who are suddenly swamped with work, booking, and rebooking—over and over again? What smart strategies and changes in business models are you seeing them come up with?

Jackie Friedman, President of Nexion LLC. Credit: ASTA

Jackie: First, while it can be a shock to the system to go from famine to feast, a positive attitude is essential. When work volume has reached a point where you are overwhelmed, it is time to look at the way you run your business and take action. Make sure you are communicating timing for things like responses and deliverables. Consider becoming more selective with the types of travel requests you take on, and consider developing a niche.

Many travel advisors are using calendar apps to let clients set up short initial consultations. These consultations are complimentary, and if the advisor and the client decide to work together a fee kicks in. A consultation also can help the advisor ascertain whether clients are a serious prospect, or if the trip they want is in the advisor’s wheelhouse—all with a minimal time investment.

And look to your network of travel advisor colleagues. If you don’t feel you can fulfill a request, you can’t just leave a client high and dry. Refer them to an advisor you trust, who deals with their kind of trips (and let your colleague know you are happy to do the same for them). It’s a good idea to make an arrangement when doing that and make clear that you are giving them only the booking, not the customer.

If an advisor is spending too much time on admin work, a virtual assistant is an excellent choice. You can even band together with other travel advisors to share the assistant. Typically, these professionals are paid by the hour and, when they take on administrative tasks, that frees travel advisors up to actually sell travel.

You have to have the bandwidth to offer your travelers the best services, and no one benefits when a travel advisor is run ragged.

Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network

Alex: Both Signature and our members have spent the past 14 months getting ready for this. Advisors have rethought their preferred supplier strategy, cleaned up their databases, worked and re-worked their fee structures, and identified the very best advisors to hang on to. Signature has worked very hard on ensuring our members are more relevant and efficient post-Covid. Our cruise booking engine (Signature CruisePro) is fully deployed, we have consolidated supplier FCC/FTC data and served it up to agencies and advisors, and we have aggregated and synthesized health and safety information by supplier and destination and put it at their fingertips. I feel like we are ready and have encouraged agency owners to rehire, utilizing their ERTC credits to recoup up to $7,000 per quarter of an employee’s pay.

 

As travel comes back, TAs are busier than ever, but still having big cash flow issues. How are the efforts going to encourage suppliers to move up commission payments?

Jackie: Change never happens overnight, but smart suppliers know how important the travel advisor channel is to their business. They simply can’t fill ships, hotel rooms, plane seats, and tours without them. Travel advisors going out of business on a large scale would very much affect their bottom line. There have been talks to speed up the commission cycle, so an advisor doesn’t have to wait until time of travel. For instance, Norwegian Cruise Line has changed their policy to pay commission on cruises when they are paid in full, including FCCs. And they certainly aren’t the only suppliers acknowledging that something needs to be done. I am very hopeful that we will start to see a change in time of commission on a larger scale.

On a more immediate level, travel advisors can keep commissions flowing by selling travel insurance and being prepared to sell destinations that people can travel to now. More than ever, people are itching to get out of the house, and last-minute trips are becoming more common. Advisors can also charge fees to bring in cash outside of commissions.

Alex: There’s no doubt that the role of a travel advisor is more critical to both consumers and partners than ever before. Everyone understands that travel is more complicated now, but also likely in more demand than ever… after being cooped up for over a year! So suppliers know they need us to advocate for them; they know they need us to synthesize all of the components of a great vacation for the customer; and, right now, most can’t answer the phone quickly enough to service travel advisors, let alone direct customers. I don’t think there is a better time than right now for them to do it—to help us grow their sales force (because owners are having a hard time bringing people back when we have to wait months for commission). We will be asking and, I believe, we have a great value proposition for them!

 

I know you both are advocates of fees. Those who do not charge tell me they are concerned that a move to fees in their town, where most travel advisors do not charge, will just end up costing them business. What have you seen? Any suggestions for TAs in that position?

Alex: Our trainer, Nolan Burris, has been training on this since before it was in vogue, and would be the first to tell you, ‘You aren’t selling a fee, you are selling yourself, your knowledge and your expertise.’ If you don’t value those things, customers won’t either. You cannot fill orders and charge a fee, you must advise. I have never seen an instance of failure when advisors demonstrate their value. Actually most say they should have charged more!

Jackie: Empathy goes a long way. When clients tell an advisor they would rather book themselves because they don’t want to pay a fee, the travel advisor needs to respect where they are coming from in terms of worrying about cost. And then they need to explain what that fee actually gets them. Anyone can press the booking button, but only a travel advisor can give 24-7 support, expert advice and a host of value-added trip amenities. If they come back with, “Well, John Doe doesn’t charge fees,” then I suggest explaining that everyone has different business models, and that your fee allows you to give greater concierge services at all times—similar to other fee-based professionals they work with. If they go to John Doe, that’s OK. You can’t service everyone, and your excellence and expertise can speak for themselves.

Have confidence in your professional value! The greatest hurdle to charging a fee is negative self-talk. Travel advisors have shown their worth during the pandemic, and the general public has heard all the stories of advisors getting their clients out of countries before their borders shut and protecting their vacation investments when trips were canceled. I really believe that an unsure travel advisor would be surprised at how many people won’t bat an eye at a fee. Nexion Travel Group’s consortium, Travel Leaders Network, has seen 25% of its recent leads come from people who have never used a travel advisor before. That is a large group who are eager to work with you and won’t be phazed by a fee.

To dip your toe in, it is helpful to offer a short complimentary consult before a fee applies, and to start with charging fees for new clients. Remember that you don’t have to charge everyone a fee. If you have a long-time client who books regular expensive trips, maybe you decide to keep things the same. Do what works best for your business.

Fees are normal. You are a competent professional, and you have so much to offer your clients. In this time of ever-changing travel regulations, you are the expert who can save your travelers from making all sorts of vacation-ruining mistakes. A fee is just something that recognizes that.

 

Do you think Washington will be forthcoming with more PPP and Unemployment to help travel advisors?

Jackie: Because we have ASTA as our voice, I’d say yes. I can’t give the travel advisor organization enough credit for the work they have done to help advisors tell their stories, and to lobby to make legislators understand that travel advisors are small business owners facing a crisis out of their control. While I don’t think it will necessarily be specific to travel advisors, I am very hopeful that additional relief funds will be made available, as many businesses are just starting to dig themselves out of the Covid hole and need some assistance until they can recover. From an IC perspective, continued relief funding is critical because, unlike employees, travel advisors are working harder than ever but not getting paid.

The best way travel advisors can help bring about additional funding is to join ASTA! All advisors need to be participating in their grassroots advocacy and continue to tell stories. This is not a one-and-done effort. We have a long way to go, and need to support ASTA to get our travel agencies to a better place post-pandemic.

Alex: As you know, we are focused on the SAVE act currently, and have seen some good success since Legislative Day picking up co-sponsors. That said, I do think if there is unused PPP money, we have a great case to getting more sent our way. The press conference was really about explaining our model, and this gap between booking (and having to pay employees) and commission. As far as unemployment, I am not convinced that the federal or state governments will be able to carve out unemployment compensation specifically for our industry. What scares me more is that it appears that, in some states, the Federal unemployment will be pulled back before it was set to expire. On one hand, I know our partners need that in order to get folks back to work and staff their res centers, hotels, restaurants, etc. But, at the same time, advisors could likely stay on unemployment into 2022, when commission checks will start appearing in earnest.

 


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.

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