It’s a CEO’s job to be inspirational, and a reporter’s job to be skeptical. But I have to admit, I was moved by Brad Tolkin’s buoyant tone as he kicked off Dream Vacations/CruiseOne/Cruises Inc.’s Travel Advisor Learning Summit on Zoom last week—and inspired by the great tips offered up by the speakers.
Overnight, it seems, all those dire predictions for the travel industry in general and cruising in particular have been put to rest by that pent-up demand industry leaders have been promising through the pandemic. World Travel Holdings, parent of these three travel companies and many others, saw its non-cruise bookings surge by double digits over record 2019 sales, “validating the explosion in business we are seeing,” WTH co-chairman and CEO Tolkin said in his opening remarks. And the majority are traveling in 2021, and booking at higher prices for both cruise and non-cruise. “The consumer is speaking – and they are very comfortable with traveling.”
The news for travel advisors is even better. “First it was cutting commissions, then online travel agencies, then the onslaught of the internet—I have heard [stories about] the death march of the travel advisor far too often, and it is simply not going to happen,” Tolkin said.
Cruising Is Back
Against a backdrop of the first cruise sailings playing on the TV news, Tolkin’s comments remind us how far we have come. “Conventional thinking is that cruising will never be the same, but nothing could be further from the truth,” he noted. In the five years after 2012/13, which saw the Costa Concordia and Carnival Triumph disasters, cruising had its best years ever. And even now, there are 113 new ships on the order books of the largest cruise lines—and they have not canceled a single order. Neither have the private equity firms that are funding Virgin Voyages and the Ritz Carlton Yacht Collection.
The broad WTH collection of travel advisor and direct-to-consumer brands, including CruisesOnly.com and VacationOutlet.com, offers “a great lens into how travel is distributed—and our travel advisor channel has been doing significantly better than the direct-to-consumer lines. It is not even close. The consumer wants the advice, comfort, and professionalism that comes with a top-notch travel advisor handling their vacation. Holiday travel is going to be insane; you need to book your customers now, or you will be hearing those words we haven’t heard for a long time: Sold out.”
Look how far we have come in the past six months; just imagine where we will be in the next six, he suggested. In 40 years in the business, Covid has been “another iconic tragedy—but this is the biggest build-up of travel demand I have ever seen. Mark my words, the best business to be in for 2021 is the travel business. The travel industry, and especially the leisure travel industry, is at the very beginning of what will be our greatest moment. Our cruise business is exploding and, when it fully restarts, you will not be able to handle the onslaught of demand. My advice: Buckle Up.”
More Advice for Travel Agents
In the course of the many sessions that followed, a number of speakers offered up tips for travel advisors trying to keep their heads above water. Here are a few:
- Stay on top of those Future Cruise Credits. They were a gift that allows you to own your clients.
- Focus, especially if you are a new agent. You can’t sell the world, and you must really know your product to compete. Tolkin started by selling just the Caribbean and Mexico, all-inclusives and cruises. His Dad, “the greatest travel advisor I have ever seen,” has built a seven-figure business selling only river cruise ships and the Oceania brand “because he loves them both.”
- Be nimble, says Princess Cruises’ John Chernesky. Take advantage of the pent-up demand by selling clients an extra cruise in 2021. As new options become available, call your clients and say, “why not take that trip you planned to take last year, that is now planned for next year, and take it this year?” Clients, too, need to be nimble. When Alaska opened, for example, a destination for which travelers traditionally prepare a year in advance was suddenly booking for just weeks away. “The goal post has changed—and there will be opportunities. One opportunity is for you to travel—so pack your bags. And the second is to keep your clients ready to grab their bag and go.”
- AMA Waterways’ Kristin Karst suggested signing up for a 2021 fam trip as a way of walking clients through the experience. Take advantage of the social media you can send out, send e-postcards saying, “I have done it, and you can do it too.” And ask for referrals. Acknowledging the really long holding times for phone calls, she suggested first trying to find answers to your questions by watching the video that walks you through making a booking.
- In reply to a question from a meeting planner who just became a travel agency franchisee, Tolkin suggested, “do your research on finding the best host agency. Talk to suppliers, people in your network, randomly make calls to do your homework. I believe group travel is actually going to do better coming out of this tragedy because more people will be working from home, and there will be more need for people to get together. I don’t think it will be back 100%, but I think group travel will be tremendous.” While luxury travel is a very profitable niche, it represents only 7% of the overall market; WTH’s Villas of Distinction brand, for example, is “doing increasingly well but it’s still a small part of WTH.”
- WTH’s Drew Daly noted that selling travel is a relationship business—and it’s time to get out there again. “If you are not networking, you are not going to be rebounding. You have to connect with new people and continue the pipeline. And remember you are selling fun. Smile!”
- Recalling his early days as a travel advisor, CLIA’s Charles Sylvia noted there are 140,000 travel advisors, so find a way to tout your unique value. Get your name into the media, so you get free publicity as an expert.
- Patty Noonan of The Travel Institute advises always suggesting a day of wellness—perhaps a hiking experience or an incredible spa—pre or post travel. “And if you are not charging fees, you are missing the boat. That message is loud and clear.”
- Focus on time management and qualifying in this “travel advisor renaissance, where the general public realizes they need travel advisors more than any time in their lifetime,” Sylvia said. Separate the wheat from the chaff by charging a fee, even if you offer to refund it when they book.
- Noonan noted that The Travel Institute offers a limited number of 50% scholarships every July. Top advisors might consider the Certified Travel Industry Executive leadership program, which focuses on how to influence and impact the industry, “how to be a voice and a leader. We are going to need those voices, those 30-year veterans, going forward.”
- On a panel of travel advisors, Karen Quinn Panzer and Chrissy Norris said Google My Business has been a huge help in promoting their business the past few months. Norris also noted that rather than expecting people to remember her name, she created an avatar of herself wearing a shirt with her company logo that she posted against different backgrounds everywhere on social media—and immediately saw the number of calls to her agency jump. In the unfortunate position of opening her agency just as Covid hit, Norris also has had success sending luggage tags to every single person who contacts her, whether they book or not. Customers are touched and appreciative, post picture of the tags online thanking her—and already have generated new business for her. Mike Ziegenbalg has had success with an ad that says, “if you have a voucher, and don’t know what to do with it, let me help you with that.” And LaTasha Henderson has won the hearts of her clients by tracking their flights and staying in touch with them in the airport as they travel.
Tolkin acknowledged that he’d never imagined the travel industry would remain closed for so long—and would never have believed that so many travel advisors would hang in there if it did.
“The resilience of front-line travel agents and independent entrepreneurs who run their own business has just been incredible and inspiring to me,” he said. “I think about the economic devastation, if this had happened years ago. But what was proven was that we can function from anywhere, that the home-based travel advisor can be effective, productive and profitable on a trip or at home.”
Tolkin predicted that the cruise lines will raise occupancy levels through the balance of the year, and by the end of Q1 2022 (and January 1 in North America) all ships will back in the water and at 100% capacity.
“Consumers are screaming for your advice,” Tolkin said. “Don’t let them down and they will come back for life.”
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.