When Gerrilyn Grant was practicing law, her clients always made an appointment if they wanted to speak with her. But when she opened M&E Unlimited Travel in Montgomery, AL, a decade ago, she was hungry for business—and anxious to appear accessible. “Call or email me any time and I’ll reply right away,” she told potential clients.
But no more.
With a client list of 1,200 who suddenly all want to go on vacation, Grant pulled out her old legal playbook and began requiring appointments. “My phones were ringing off the hook and I was getting email after email; it’s been really really something,” she says. So when her payment app, Square, added appointment scheduling software, she took the lifeline and signed right up.
“You literally can set up an email with a link where clients can book a time, and it goes right to my calendar,” she says. “And I thought bingo, that’s just what I need.”
In her monthly newsletter, Grant noted her new “Free Half-Hour Consultation”—along with a list of fees that apply after that. When clients text or email her, she says, “sure, set an appointment and we’ll talk about it.”
A New Business Model
Grant is one of a wave of travel advisors pushed by Covid into trying new ways of doing business. Like many, she found the combination of scheduling appointments and charging fees went hand in hand—and made her look more professional, enhanced her revenue stream, and helped her maintain her sanity. So, what’s not to like?
Jennifer Maki, meanwhile, found appointment scheduling to be a lifesaver when she uprooted her agency, Divine Destinations, from a brick and mortar in Minnesota to a home office in Puerto Rico. “The silver lining of covid was that I was able to embrace the laptop lifestyle,” she says. But working from home, winning new clients, and putting together a course on running your agency that she hopes to market to other travel advisors required her to better manage her time.
“Scheduling appointments works,” she says. “It’s on all of my call to actions—my website, my email signatures, my weekly newsletter. They all say, ‘Book a call, book a call.’ Clients go to the link, fill out a short form so I know if they are looking for a $15,000 honeymoon to Bora Bora or a $3,000 river cruise, and get an allotted time.”
With a specialty in honeymoons, Maki gets a lot of inquiries from potential new customers over Google. She now replies with a canned template saying, “I’d love to help you—and this is how we work: Schedule a time to chat, so I can learn more about your trip. If it’s a good fit, I’ll let you know how much it is going to cost. Then, all you have to do is pack your bags and we’ll do the rest.”
For existing customers, she says, “with covid a lot of things have changed, including how we do things around here.” She goes down the list of all the things they get if they hire her, and then says, “If this sounds good, we have a nonrefundable design fee (a minimum $250), and then we can get started today.”
For now, she takes their credit card information over the phone; but she is in the process of automating the billing, so she can email them an invoice and they can punch in their own credit card information. “I probably lose 15-20% because of the fee, but that’s nothing when I look at the other 75-80% that say ‘yes.’ Almost 100% of those end up booking; they are not going to pay the fee and then not go.”
Maki started by using Acuity for appointments, but recently switched to Calenly because it is “very simple and integrated into my overall automation (Keap, formerly Infusion Soft).”
She says allowing appointments only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays reduces the hours she has to work and, “from the consumer standpoint, makes it appear that I am really busy.”
Learning from His Business Coach
Charles (“Russ”) Russell, owner of a CruisePlanners agency in New Braunfels, TX, copied the idea of using an automated appointment calendar from his business coach. Together they chose YouCanBookMe.com, for which he pays a small fee, as the best option for him. “It’s the easiest for me to navigate through and make last-minute adjustments. It’s literally a minute and a half to go in and block days out,” he says. “Now it’s just part of my introduction to new clients. I say, here are my business hours, here’s my scheduling link; I’ll be happy to share a 30-minute block with you. It’s in my emails and my signature block.”
Probably 25-30% of his clients use it, but he hopes to get to 75% by end of the year.
Heather Olah, meanwhile, just this month used Facebook’s new scheduling feature to set up her first appointment at her agency, The Everyday Escape in Greensboro, NC.
Balancing “other income streams to help support my family during Covid” with her travel business, she has found that setting appointments “allows me to have dedicated time to focus on my travel clients. Really, it’s ridiculous that we allow people to just call us and get information any time.”
With a background in aviation, where “you need a certificate for anything you do,” Olah is amazed that there are no requirements for becoming a travel advisor—and agrees that setting appointments and charging fees is a first step toward professionalizing the career.
“My motto is: Be in control and be professional,” agrees Deborah Izenberg at GeoLuxe Travel. She has set up a template that automatically goes out to the 99% of customer inquiries that reach her via email; offering appointments by phone, Google Meet, Zoom or Facebook Messenger; and outlining the general process she follows.
And Grant, at M&E Unlimited, notes that it’s a great way to keep the amount of time you spend with a client in check. In her first month, she’s had about 15 clients set appointments, including many from a group of 20 she is escorting to Dubai and Egypt in November.
“I told my clients I am busier than ever. If you need me, you know I will get back to you, but I am not able to just pick up the phone because of the volume of calls these days. So, if you need me, just click here and choose a time and we will talk,” she says. “New clients in particular can ramble on—but now they can ramble for 30 minutes, and then I will have to say bye-bye. But really, I haven’t had anyone go over the 30 minutes. When the timer on my Fitbit starts to vibrate, time’s up—and I find everyone already has wrapped up.”
With so many of her customers traveling this summer—“and the fall is just nuts”—Grant just doesn’t have the time to play phone tag and email back and forth, where a simple short phone conversation can get everyone on the same page.
“I don’t have time to waste,” she says. “I’m going to make this work for me and for my clients so I don’t have to kill myself trying to please everybody. And if I miss out because someone doesn’t want to do it, they are just not my people. If they are serious, they will make an appointment. There’s no downside.”
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.